La Piquette: The name might be a joke; the cooking is anything but

When Cyril Brenac named his new restaurant La Piquette, his French-speaking friends questioned his judgment.

“Piquette” refers to second-class wine. Why aim low?

“It’s a joke. We’re having fun,” Brenac says. So as not to compete with his more sophisticated dining room in nearby Georgetown, Bistrot Lepic, the restaurateur opened his second place near National Cathedral sans table linens or a long wine list. The informality at La Piquette extends to the menu, which is displayed on chalkboards, and the setting, which finds a garage door separating bistro from patio. Bread shows up in little paper bags stamped “Quench & Feed.”

Introduced in November, La Piquette replaces the fleeting Le Zinc and gives discerning neighbors a reason other than 2 Amys, the always-hopping pizzeria, to head out for dinner. The mood at the newcomer, co-owned by Bruno Fortin, is breezy — sometimes the bistro takes reservations; other times it doesn’t — but the cooking is serious. Heading up the kitchen is Francis Layrle, the Gascony native whose saffron-scented mussel soup and duck with currant jus helped fill seats at the late Bezu in Potomac. Earlier in his career, Layrle cooked at the French Embassy, where he fed seven ambassadors. “We’re from the same part of France,” says Brenac, who bonded with his chef over such childhood memories as foie gras and cassoulet.

Cheery in gold (walls) and red (banquettes), La Piquette is a pleasant place to find yourself for several courses. Yes, it’s noisy, and sure, it’s cramped. But who goes to a bistro for solitude? A few steps up from the main dining room are tall tables that face an open kitchen and an eight-stool bar that dispenses Kir Royales, Pernod and Calvados.

Oysters on the half shell are an encouraging start, as is salmon tartare made creamy with avocado and bright with citrus. Yet another reason to order seafood here: crab tickled with espelette pepper and nestled in Bibb lettuce.

Just when you’re thinking La Piquette isn’t so different from Bistrot Lepic, along comes a rib-sticker to prove otherwise. One of the heartiest first courses (anywhere) could stand in as a full meal. Indeed, Layrle’s chunky soup of duck, beans and carrots brings to mind liquid cassoulet. The dish, known as garbure, is famous in the French region of Béarn, where it originated from the kitchens of peasants. Just before serving, the chef garnishes the bowl with julienned cabbage and garlic and makes it richer with melted prosciutto fat. Keep garbure in mind come the next polar vortex.

Don’t fall for any one dish if you can help it; the menu changes like winter’s weather. Experience at La Piquette has taught me that if I can’t catch whole grilled pompano again, I might make a new favorite of, say, Dover sole, firm and sweet, its butter sauce sparked with capers. “It’s an expensive item,” Layrle says of the imported Dover sole, priced at $45, about double the entree average here. While he wants to keep prices down, “if people ask for it, I’ll do it.” (The Dover sole was extra from a private party.)

Among the handful of repeat finds on the menu has been the rib-eye with french fries, which go fast once they hit the bare table. The rosy steak with its shallot confit proves an easy habit. Sauteed mushrooms should be ordered for the table, although once you taste them, you might not want to share.

I worried for the bistro when I showed up for an early dinner not long ago and found more staff than customers. My concern faded as smiling arrivals packed the place by 7. For such a new restaurant, La Piquette seems to count a lot of regulars.

For the first time in his long career, Layrle is visible to his customers. “I’m a shy person,” he says, “but it’s pleasant” to see the reactions of diners, especially at the end of the night. The look on their faces, he says, is “the best reward.”

My excitement over a fresh place to eat in a part of the city that begs for better options is tempered by occasionally ordinary food: a beautiful but boring beet salad one visit and a mute beef daube (Where are the wine notes? The herbs?) at a subsequent dinner. An overly generous hand with the salt shaker detracted from an otherwise satisfying cassoulet. Still, I was reminded of the power of ambiance the night a companion and I merely picked at the aforementioned beef stew, the backdrop for which was a snow scene to compete with “White Christmas” and visible through the glass garage door.

Even without syrah in my glass,
the picture would have been dreamy.

Plan to stay for dessert. The kitchen makes it worth your while. Rice pudding perfumed with cardamom and moist orange “biscuit” cake glazed with kirsch are very good, but if forced to choose one last bite, I’d make it the thin and pretty apple tart delivered with a choice of velvety, house-made pistachio or vanilla ice cream.

La Piquette undersells itself. Yet beneath the bistro’s modesty is the reality: a welcome taste of France in Cleveland Park.

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★★

(Good)
La Piquette

3714 Macomb St. NW. 202-686-2015. lapiquettedc.com.

OPEN:
Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to
9:30 p.m. Sunday; brunch 11 a.m. to
3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

PRICES: Appetizers $8 to $18, main courses $17 to $29.

SOUND CHECK:
80 decibels/
Extremely loud.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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