THIS WEEKEND the French chefs of Washington come down off their hautes horses to play pe'tanque and grill homey sausages called merguez at the 15th annual Amicale Culinaire de Washington Pic-Nic.
It's a very traditional event, serving the down-home open-air foods of France. Yet this year's menu makes me fear the future of French cuisine. For the first time the French have turned down their noses at what they once considered an abomination: The Amicale Culinaire Pic-Nic is serving pasta salad.
EARLY BIRD LOSES THE ACCENT --
Reader Jan Olsen thought she caught a slip of the accent when she and her husband went to Chez Nous restaurant for its $12.95 early-bird special. As she wrote, the waiter described the entrees to the next table in a French accent, then when she asked for the early-bird menu he dropped the accent and offered just "chicken, fish or liver." So I called co-owner Max Emsellem to investigate the accents of his waiters -- and the treatment of early-bird diners.
Chez Nous has only one waiter who's not a foreigner, Emsellem said, and he is a redhead nobody would take for anything but American. The rest of the waiters are French, Middle Eastern and Afghan, with authentic and non-slip accents. As for giving short shrift to early-bird diners, he was astonished at the idea. "Early reservations -- 99 percent of the time, it is early bird!" he exclaimed in heavily accented English. Chez Nous widely advertises its early-bird dinners, welcomes and very much encourages that business, he added. And while he acknowledged that one out of his seven dining room staff might be ungracious to a guest at one time or another, that does not reflect the tone of the restaurant.
OH SAY, CAN YOU SEA? --
This college is more likely to have drop-ins than drop-outs. It is the Sea Grant College Program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science of the College of William & Mary Gloucester Point Campus (near Yorktown). The subject this semester is seafood. These seafood education seminars are six sessions of demonstrations, eating and drinking, prepared by local restaurateurs (Sunday, Williamsburg's Trellis restaurant; Wednesday, Jimmy Sneed of Urbanna's Chez Claude; October 7, Susan Painter, a winner of last year's Governor's Seafood Tasting; October 14, William A. Sclabassi of Wesley's Restaurant in Virginia Beach; October 28, Renee and Lee Chewning of Chick Cove Manor in Deltaville; and November 11, Richard Carr of Berret's in Williamsburg). The first class, a brunch, will be from 11 to 2; the others, dinners, will be 6:30 to 9; all will include Virginia wines. The brunch class is $20; evening classes are $22.50 each, or all five for $100. To register call 804/642-7169, or write Sue Gammisch, VIMS, Gloucester Point VA 23062.
FRY ME TO THE MOON --
It's a lot more natural being a Frequent Eater than being a Frequent Flyer. Now four local Hilton Hotel restaurants are reinforcing the practice with The Contemporary Palate Hilton Dining Club. Members earn points for dining at Hilton restaurants (not necessarily for cleaning their plates -- that's another club). It's not exactly a bonanza (15 dinners equal a free bottle of wine, 50 dinners a free Sunday brunch for four, and 500 dinners a trip to Hawaii for two). Membership in the club is free, however, and includes a free cocktail on your first visit. 800/336-7666.