First Bite: Experienced hands bound at Malmaison

(Marvin Joseph/ The Washington Post ) - Malmaison in Georgetown offers dusty-rose seating a la the ’80s.

(Marvin Joseph/ The Washington Post ) - Malmaison in Georgetown offers dusty-rose seating a la the ’80s.

Tim Zagat, the man who made food critics of the masses with his burgundy-colored dining guides, says he can discern a lot about a restaurant just by the way it smells. I believe that to be true, too.

“Is that cauliflower?” a friend asks as we enter the dining room of Malmaison, the fledgling French eatery on the Georgetown waterfront.

VIENNA, VA, JANUARY 9, 2013: Winter salad of shaved cucumber, radish and endive with lemon vinaigrette. Dishware courtesy of Crate & Barrel. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

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Malmaison

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Noses wrinkle when I share my sense of the pervasive aroma: bleach.

Malmaison, introduced in June by the owners of Cafe Bonaparte and Napoleon and dressed a la 1982 with dusty-rose chairs, was designed as a place to play and meet as much as a spot to dine. So there are morning coffee hours, two bars and a second-level dance floor. At night, the lights of Rosslyn are visible through the restaurant’s enormous garage-style doors.

The names on the single-page menu lend it credibility. Consulting chef Gerard Pangaud reigned at Gerard’s Place downtown (now Siroc) for 13 years, while pastry chef Serge Torres counts Le Cirque in New York on his résumé. Surprisingly, then, the choices read like a business-class upgrade on (insert your preferred airline here), hold the warm nuts and hot towels: beet-goat cheese napoleon and sauteed shrimp to start, and short ribs with mashed potatoes and cheese ravioli to follow.

That pink beet appetizer tastes like a slab of cream cheese more than anything else, by the way. A first course of foie gras medallions with dried fruit goes down like unsalted butter. (Almost everything could use more seasoning and less frisee.) Although muted, shrimp and diced peppers with a suggestion of lime, gathered in a little cast-iron pan, show the most finesse. Get the duck confit only for its crisp sauteed potatoes; the fowl itself is more grease than meat. Halibut paved with black mushroom duxelles is respectable. The entree everyone at my table agrees to be the best is perhaps the most simple: ravioli fat with roasted tomato and mozzarella.

Pals and I polish off the tarte tatin with its plump apples and wafer-thin pastry but leave most of the mango tart behind; its underbaked crust is gummy.

Service proves more memorable. When we order a bottle of Gigondas, our waiter’s eyes light up, and he shares a little story about one of the theories behind the French wine’s name, possibly taken from the Latin jucunda, or “joyful.”

The wine makes us giddy to be at Malmaison. The food, not so much.

3401 Water St. NW. 202-817-3340.www.malmaisondc.com. Dinner entrees, $19 to $28.

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