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  • Read the transcript from Thursday's, May 28, chat with Phyllis Richman.
 
An Ordinary Vintage

By Phyllis Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 24, 1998

  Richman Review


Expectations count for a lot.

If you discover Vintage as you hurry along M Street on some cool, rainy Tuesday, you'll probably consider yourself lucky. Instinct might lead you to counteract the damp day with a $5.50 bowl of onion soup, and instead of the typical factory-made broth you expected, you'll find a rich, dark beef stock made from scratch, and the sweet fragrance of onions cooked very slowly until they are thoroughly brown.

Real onion soup. What an astonishment! If it comes not quite hot enough, you can send it back for rewarming, and if the layer of melted cheese is too thick, you can edge it aside to get at the soup. The important point is that it's old-fashioned, truly French onion soup. The crouton floating in the bowl is of hearty country bread, and you'll note more of that good bread on your table. Then, if your luck holds, you'll get a server such as Sofia, who has spent time in France and knows exactly which glass of wine from the 17 available will suit your taste and your order.

You might also be captivated by the list of simple, homey French salads: frisee with ham, Gruyere and walnuts; green beans with sherry vinaigrette; celery root salad. Reading the menu, you might think you've stumbled upon a corner of provincial France in Georgetown.

   
Turning Tables

Since new management took over Dupont Circle's City Lights of China last winter, the frequent compliments have turned to frequent complaints. Customers report being rushed, having plates whisked away and even being asked to leave in order to turn over the table. If you reserve a table, it will be held for only 10 minutes, and only if every member of the party is there by then. This 100-seat restaurant is now serving 300 to 400 people a day, every day, "and we do our best," says its new manager and co-owner, Andy Chang. His premise is severe: "One and a half hours and the customer is supposed to leave."- P.C.R.

On the other hand, if you've been hearing about chef Gerard Pangaud's new bistro and wine bar for the past two years and waiting for it to open, and you've been imagining his grandmother's version of cassoulet, or chicken with parsley, mushrooms and shallots stuffed under the skin, you might feel you've been shortchanged. Vintage has had pre-start-up and post-start-up staffing problems, and while the recipes might have come from the Pangaud family archives, their preparation doesn't display the sure touch of either the master chef or his maternal forebears. The good news is, the food is real-from scratch, traditional cooking. The letdown is, most of it is rather ordinary. It's fine as long as your expectations aren't too high.

Onion isn't the only heartwarming soup here. The fish soup is unduly tomatoey, but that's counteracted by plenty of fish essence, and the soup is all the more charming for its little dishes of diced cheese, mild rouille and croutons. If the day doesn't warrant a hot soup, there's one particular cold appetizer that could start dinner with promise: Roquefort terrine with frisee salad. It's a smooth and creamy slab, tasting deeply of Roquefort yet calmer than undiluted cheese. Spread on a chunk of baguette and accompanied by its green salad, it's a tiny, wonderful balanced meal. The duck terrine, though, is too compact and bland, served with a single lonely apricot and a prune. Sometimes there's an appetizer of puff pastry, shredded leeks and goat cheese, nicely sharp in flavor.

Except for an evocative and meltingly tender veal casserole with carved root vegetables on the winter menu, the long-cooked entrees have seemed more slapdash than lovingly tended. Cassoulet is a pot of salty beans, heavy on the tomato, with a few chewy chunks of pork, lamb and duck-so shriveled that they are hard to tell apart. Choucroute tastes flat: Mild and uninteresting sauerkraut is topped with a slice of smoked pork, another of boiled bacon and three kinds of underseasoned sausage. Braised oxtail bourguignon-which Pangaud specifically attributed to his grandmother-was pretty good, but it's been deleted from this season's menu.

Dishes more quickly cooked-cod, salmon, skate wing, mussels, steak, roast lamb and chicken-depend on the luck of the moment, of course. I've had flawlessly sauteed cod, though with a mushy yellow pool of leeks and potatoes, and a roast chicken that was sadly overcooked, though its herbed stuffing lent it a delectable fragrance. Soft-shell crabs, mildly curried, have been crisp and moist.

Vintage's dining rooms-two upstairs and one down, with closely packed marble tables-look as if they were decorated on a shoestring, with a few gilt-framed mirrors and a lone painting downstairs, a couple of antique posters and photos on the second floor. Downstairs the walls are a pale sponged yellow; upstairs they're a muddy and depressing tan. The music careens from Top 40 to jazz.

Whatever style, taste or extravagance this restaurant has is concentrated on wine: The dinner menu is handsomely covered with cork-an apt choice for a place called Vintage. The stemware-at least if you order by the bottle rather than by the glass-is of large and elegant proportions. Most important, there are lovely wines to pour into those glasses, ranging well beyond the usual cabernets and chardonnays, and arranged by grape rather than by country. The prices are nearly saintly. Where else will you find a sparkling wine such as Roederer Anderson Valley brut for $6.50 or a serious French champagne for $9.50 a glass? The still wines by the glass are not only honorable ones, but almost all are $5 to $7. And by the bottle there are very attractive choices in the $20-$25 range.

Desserts are neither dazzlers nor mere afterthoughts. The creme brulee has an eggy and delicate flavor, a slightly too firm texture and a sugar crust that is uneven but painstakingly browned. Tarte au chocolat is like a slice of chocolate mousse, as intense and bittersweet as one could wish, though it was unfathomably served on a very hot plate that started it melting. Warm apple tart is tough and doughy, in need of more apple. Poire Belle-Helene combines properly poached fruit with vanilla ice cream and thick fudgy sauce; what could be bad?

Don't think of Vintage as a showcase for Gerard Pangaud. Don't anticipate an homage to a top chef's family cooking. It's a moderately priced and simple French restaurant in Georgetown. It's a place you might stop for a glass of wine and a little lunch or dinner when you happen to be in the neighborhood.

VINTAGE-2809 M ST. NW. 202-625-0077. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate smoking area. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.50 to $6.50, entrees $9.95 to $18; dinner appetizers $5 to $8, entrees $14.50 to $19. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $40 to $55 per person.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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