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Promise Keeper

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 1999

  Richman Review

At last, Lespinasse is the answer. Where should you go for your anniversary? Is there a restaurant suited to a grand celebration of a big birthday? What's the perfect place to entertain a wine-loving, food-savvy client from out of town?

Lespinasse, Lespinasse, Lespinasse.

Lespinasse is finally living up to the promise of its sumptuous dining room. This magnificent, crystal-dripping, royal-blue-and-golden two-story space is a lush representation of a century nearly gone by. It's dressed for an important occasion, yet in its first two years it left us yearning for food that was more than interesting. It needed a change.

After a summer closing, a search throughout France for a new chef and a hard look at the menu and prices, Lespinasse reopened in the fall with a new young French chef. Sandro Gamba had worked with Alain Ducasse, Joel Robuchon and Roger Verge before earning his own Michelin star at the Chateau de Lignan. He's a chef who knows how to take off in new directions without forgetting his roots. Just what Lespinasse has been waiting for.

This dining room could almost succeed without a chef. It personifies silk and velvet. Its crystal is the thinnest and finest, the silver is charming, the roses are elegant. A martini is brought in a silver shaker and poured into a cut-crystal glass, and the wine list makes you want to settle into a quiet corner to read for an uninterrupted hour or two. The sommelier, the justly celebrated Vincent Feraud, is just as enthusiastic about the $40 bottles as the three-digit ones; he knows the people who make his wines, and loves telling their stories as he decants your bottle.

Lespinasse's dining room staff performs with subtle grace except for an occasional waiter so obsequious and intrusive ("May I remove this crumb from your tablecloth?") that you wonder whether he wandered into the wrong dining room. In most cases, no sooner do you notice you need something than it's uncannily and discreetly provided.

For such an elaborate restaurant, the menu is modest. It has been evolving, but there are usually about 10 main courses on the a la carte list at dinner, and fewer appetizers and desserts. Fixed-price menus at dinner offer a choice of four courses for $48 or six for $85, as well as a five-course vegetable menu for $48; a three-course lunch is $36. While a la carte prices are more sensible than they once were, extras add up: Unless you state firmly a preference for tap water, those attentive refillings of your glass can make your water bill look like a wine bill. Your first sampling of Gamba's work, though, is free. It might be a miniature puff of a corncake or a tiny tower of paper-thin toasts with dollops of fennel puree, olive paste and roasted red peppers. The crunch and silkiness, salt and earthiness are like an exclamation point, drawing your attention to delicacies to come.

Gamba is still, of course, learning his way around American kitchens and markets. Not only is he new to this country, he's so young – 28 – that you can safely assume he would benefit from further aging. No need to wait, though. Already you can put together an exciting meal from his fledgling menu.

First courses are easy. They're nearly all wonderful. The smell of chestnuts envelops your table when their opaque earth-colored soup is poured over its garnish of truffles, more chestnuts and a juicy little stuffed chicken drumette that's meant to be eaten by hand. This soup is as warming and enticing as a crackling fire; it's too good to miss. Or it would be if the alternatives weren't also dazzling. Foie gras is offered hot or cold. The former is sauteed and crusty with a poached pear and a drizzle of port reduction glistening on the plate. The cold terrine is a diamond-shaped mosaic of silky liver and chunks of artichoke and of guinea hen, which is almost as smooth and soft as the foie gras. Normally I'd choose hot foie gras, especially one as crisp-edged and near-melting as this one, but the cold terrine is so ethereal, with its tiny feathers of green herbs and sheen of olive oil, that I can't resist ordering it.

No, I take that back. I can't imagine starting a meal at Lespinasse without the grilled scallops, brown-edged and shimmering in a foamy tide of sea urchin sauce with a topknot of subtle, nearly crunchy seaweed for contrast. Of course, that means passing up the shellfish ragout, which anyway has never again been as wonderful as it was the first time I tried it. The ginger sauce is alchemy – heady yet light – but lately the shellfish mix has been dominated by dry braised squid and bland octopus. And the vegetable tart is a delightful bouquet of grill-striped baby vegetables on a fine eggplant puree and a sheer disk of pastry, but it's not as exciting as the foie gras or scallops.

Most important, don't waste $50 on a truffle-season special of bay scallops with white truffles. The truffles are faint, and such tiny scallops can resemble pencil erasers if they're cooked a mite too long. They are.

If you're a meat fancier, you might never discover Gamba's flaws. All his meat entrees are exceptional. Venison could hardly be more luscious than his spice-crusted version, its marinade giving it acidic undertones. Even its braised celery, a humble vegetable flecked with spices, tastes regal, and the apple salad is composed of slices so thin that they've been transformed to sheer crunch and tartness. Squab is as gamy as the venison, teamed with beets, thumb-size truffle tortellini and an extraordinary juicy little sausage. Lamb is served in four guises on one plate: marvelous paper-thin slivers of leg, slices of rare loin, a tiny rack and succulent braised strips. Called a "symphony," it does taste like music, and its accompaniment of couscous with apricots, orange peel and spices is lilting. A subtler entree is guinea hen, braised with napa cabbage in a rosemary bouillon with slices of black truffle. A more obvious crowd pleaser is beef tenderloin, surprisingly flavorful for that overrated cut, accompanied by a small Stonehenge of stuffed browned potatoes and dark mushrooms. But what outshines all of these entrees is a risotto, perfectly creamy and utterly rich, with slivers of duck and gizzard confit, ghostly near-transparent little mushrooms, thin stalks of green asparagus and curled shavings of Parmesan.

I've skipped over the seafood entrees. With good reason. Lobster stuffed with cauliflower in a frothy, faintly curried sauce is just short of wonderful, since the lobster meat is undercooked. Turbot is correct and pure, but has little flavor. It's upstaged by its warmed romaine and figs that look like lacquered toys. Sea bass is equally bland, despite its pomegranate and almond sauce. And the croustillant of salmon and tuna is a gorgeous yin-yang design, the two fish wrapped together in seaweed. But it's all show and no flavor.

After the entree, I'm torn. Lespinasse serves superb cheeses in perfect condition. But will I still have room for dessert? Pastry chef Jill Rose is too talented to ignore. First there's a pre-dessert, an explosive spoonful of sorbet in a rivulet of fruit soup. Then there's a difficult choice. Perhaps chocolate tart – truly bittersweet, its crust impossibly thin – with frozen passion fruit alongside. Maybe persimmon pudding, thick and earthy, in a syrup with chunks of somehow intensified tropical fruits. Or glazed fig with a wonderful plum compote. Everything is decorated by rods and swirls and curlicues of chocolate or pastry, but never to the detriment of the basic flavors.

But you're not done. Dinner ends with doll-size pastries – jellied candies, bite-size macaroons, chocolates and fruit tarts – that must have been rolled out by doll-size pastry chefs.

The bill? The answer is, it's worth it.

Lespinasse – The Carlton Hotel, 923 16th St. NW. 202-879-6900. Open: for breakfast daily 7 to 10:30 a.m.; for lunch Tuesday through Friday noon to 2 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar only. Prices: lunch appetizers $10 to $16, entrees $14 to $20; dinner appetizers $12 to $24, entrees $23 to $32. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $75 to $125 per person.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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