At Least the Water Is Cold

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, July 30, 2006

(No stars) Le Pigalle

1527 17th St. NW (near Q Street). 202-332-6767

Open: Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to midnight. All major credit cards. Smoking in the bar only. Metro: Dupont Circle. Prices: appetizers $5.50 to $10.95, entrees $12.95 to $20.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $60 per person.

Remember when Sushi Taro was the lone reliable place to dine on its stretch of 17th Street NW? The long-running Japanese restaurant got some much-needed company when Komi set sail in 2003 with a Mediterranean-influenced American menu, and when Hank's Oyster Bar started serving popcorn shrimp and lobster rolls just around the corner last year.

Most recently, chowhounds cheered the news that David Barigault and George Gozem, the former chef and general manager of Washington's popular Bistrot du Coin, had taken over the dark and dingy space occupied by Peppers -- home to 25-cent wing specials, hamburgers and other pub grub -- and rechristened the location Le Pigalle. The business partners revamped the interior, put up a big red awning and dressed their waiters in red T-shirts -- details that elicit smirks from customers who recognize "Pigalle" as the infamous red-light district in Paris.

I'd love to report that the new French menu is worth your attention, that Le Pigalle is yet another Komi or Hank's -- or even just a satisfying place for a slice of quiche or veal stew. Yet Le Pigalle is far, far, far removed from those ideals. Indeed, it's in another universe in terms of quality. Just ask my food-loving friends. When, following my first experience here, I polled my guests who lived nearby if they'd return on their own dime, everyone shook his head. After a subsequent dinner, at which every plate went back to the kitchen with more than three-quarters of their contents remaining, my most optimistic dining companion could muster only this faint praise: "At least the water was cold!" Personally, I contemplated asking my editor for hardship pay. But maybe I should have known: If the consideration that a restaurant puts into its bread and wine service is any sign of what to expect, I had reason to be skeptical of Le Pigalle, where a few Communion-size slices of dry bread languished in the bottom of the bread basket, and the perfunctory wine list only partially identified some of its choices and included sparklers you could find at your corner market.

So why bother? The spacious outdoor patio, with its overhead fans and nonstop show of strollers and posers, is a nice diversion, and the manager-hosts are quick to salute your arrival. And if you tiptoe carefully through Le Pigalle's minefield of a menu, you can come up with something to stave off hunger pangs. Mussels heaped in a bath of wine broth are just fine (though it would be helpful to have a smaller fork for extricating their meaty centers). The chef makes his own pâté, using trimmings from pork and veal and plenty of eggs; the result -- garlicky pink slabs of protein -- are served with toasted bread and tangy cornichons. Curiously, the summer menu, with its creamy soups and hearty stews, speaks more to flannel shirts than to tank tops, but if you don't mind eating rich in 90-degree weather, the stamp-size ravioli blanketed in tomato cream sauce is at least decent. The dish I'd be most willing to return for is an old-fashioned entree of cut-up roast chicken, chunks of poultry draped in a tarragon-laced white cream sauce and presented with a bed of rice.

Too much of the food here just makes me sad. Sad that the chef isn't trying harder and sad that so many shortcuts are taken. (The french fries taste as if they were purchased in bulk -- because they were.) The Pigalle salad looks like an easy way for the kitchen to clean out its refrigerator rather than a proper appetizer. The big plate of greens packs in matchsticks of ham, dry blue cheese, potatoes and an egg that was so undercooked I could have read the menu through its translucent white. Limp and greasy sauteed calamari come with a sauceboat of aioli that only accentuates the oil spill it is meant to flatter. Steer clear of anything involving pastry, such as the quiche Lorraine, which does an unfortunate imitation of a fat-packed Midwestern breakfast casserole, and the pissaladiere, a sorry crust of what could pass for fluted cardboard, scattered with cloyingly sweet onions, shredded anchovies and a few black olives.

The entrees also prompt a quick call for "the check, please." No matter how you request your duck or lamb chops, they come the same way: gray in the center. The best of the middling meat dishes is the veal piccata, layered with mushroom duxelles, a slice of ham and Swiss cheese, and lapped with a thick mustard sauce. A bland veal stew with wan mashed potatoes seems to have missed any contact with the spice cabinet, and a gratinee of seafood ("Coquille Saint Jacques," it's called, sullying the reputation of that classic) is a glop of some unidentifiable -- but strangely orange and very fatty -- sauce over scallops, mussels and clams that smack of old age. By meal's end, overly loud music piped into the dining room isn't the only thing that chases us out of the restaurant; the tray of circus-colored desserts looks pretty tired. ("Where are they from?" I ask my waiter. "Maryland," comes the vague reply.)

Every time I dropped in, the two busiest spots at Le Pigalle were the sidewalk patio and the granite bar, the wall of which served as a screen for music videos. It's easy to see why so few people gravitate to the main dining room, an unfortunate design statement of mirrored walls and uni-colored chairs, tables and walls. White, white, white -- and bright, bright, bright. Bring your sunglasses if you plan to eat inside. And if you find yourself at a tiny table for two, be prepared to move your bread basket, salt and pepper shakers and bottled water to a ledge to make room for whatever food you ordered. You will need some patience with the staff, too. Eager as most of them are to please, the waiters tend to auction off dishes at the table instead of delivering them to their proper places.

Over the years, I've walked past Peppers and thought how nice it would be to see something take its place. Having had that wish fulfilled by Le Pigalle, all I can say is, 25-cent wings in a cave look pretty good right now.

Ask Tom will return next week.

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