Open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Monday through Thursday, 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. AE, CB, MC. Reservations. Food: French cuisine that often soars, sometimes flies too high Style: Service in the grand manner Price: Reaching for the stars
JEAN PIERRE MORALDO worked out every angle when he left his job as maitre d'hotel at the Jockey Club to open his own restaurant.He established an advisory board of fifty women whose common qualification was that they lunch out a lot. He linked up with a wine expert who selected a careful cellar of nearly a hundred labels, most exclusively French and priced them fairly, including several acceptable choices under $10. He decorated his basement space with ivory and pale gold silks walls, red suede cloth banquettes, and delicate plaster tracery over the crystal chandeliers. He set the tables in a luxurious sea of space, then followed the suggestion of his advisory board that he grace the tables with pretty little floral bouquets.
Le Pavillon, as he so immodestly named his creation, looks as he must have hoped, grand and golden without being overblown. Yet the entry has as much lost space to traverse as a small-town train station, and the dining room retains a raw office building air that one hopes will improve with age.
Moraldo left himself vulnerable. First, he took on his partners a chef who left the week he opened. He seems to have recovered from that loss. Second, he priced Le Pavillon to compete with Washington's stellar kitchens. His main courses at dinner average over $10, his lunch dishes $7.50 to $8.50. Charging $5.50 for a quenelle as an appetizer at lunch, or $3.50 for a dish of raspberries with sabayon is issuing a challenge to the golden whisks of Washington. The $25 lunch, the $35 dinner is a tough field, even for well-seasoned contestants.
One more step Moraldo took was to seek to identify each of Washington's restaurant critics. So what I can report is what it is like to dine at le Pavillon when you are known to be a restaurant critic.
You dine very well. You are served with an eagerness that makes one fear for the waiter's blood pressure. Order a single dish of asparagus vinaigrette, and all four guests at the table receive fingerbowls. Each sip of win is answered with a fresh pouring. An endearingly candid water summed up his zeal with, "I wish you smoked, so I could empty your ashtray."
You can dine very well at Le Pavillon even if you are not a restaurant critic, however. Nobody can train the waiters and busboys on a moment's notice. The wheels were rolling smoothly all over the dinning room.
And nobody can roast a veal at the last time minute, as a critic enters the dinning room, so that it is pale and soft as cut velvet, or invent an instant champagne sauce of memorable richness and delicacy. The recognized critic will certainly be steered to the right dishes - quenelles of unerring lightness, sprightly fresh rockfish flamed in pernod and sauced with an airy whip of butter, fish stock, wine, shallots and fresh basil.
But the critic can overcome that bias by sampling a wide range of dishes. And so I made my way through the menu several times, tasting, over several weeks, fourteen different main dishes, and a comparable array of appetizers and desserts. I sampled lamb cops marinated in herbed oil, grilled to a crusty exterior and juicy pink center. I savored veal Pavillon sandwiched with a cognac-scented duxelles and sauced with cream and Roquefort cheese, an unlikely wedding that nevertheless was a delicious match. I stumbled onto fish baked in a foil envelope - the modern version of parchment cooking - which crumbled upon serving, and left the taste buds vaguely disappointed. The failures were few: a chewy, undercooked pastry under the strawberry tart, a vapid duck rillete, pastry pommes de terre dauphine, and a concoction of brains in which spinach, duxelles and mornay sauce seemed to compete rather than cooperate. Disappointments tended to be subtle. The duck with apples with a trifle soggy, though its beige calvados cream delighted. An entrecote sauced with an enticing double-whammy of two kinds of peppercorns, flamed tableside, was greater in the complextion of the sauce than in the quality of the beef. A fine vinaigrette was wasted on pallid tomatoes.
Le pavillon's chef is reaching for heights of invention. His snails are braised in a coffee-colored brandy cream with shallots and mushrooms. One day, slices of rabbit pate were interspersed with a buttery golden brioche. In season, fresh figs were peeled and ladled with raspberry puree, flecked with walnuts and decorated and whipped cream. Sometimes - with the brains, for instance - the chef reaches too far. And when you taste a simple trout with mushrooms or calves' liver with white grapes, even the honey clam chowder or watercress soup, you recognize that he succeeds well at simplicity, that he ned not strive so hard for the fanciful.
The kitchen is solid, the dinning room smooth. With each passing month, the flaws have been mending. Le Pavillon promises a bright future; one only remains uncomfortable with its being priced as if the future were here.