Open Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 10:30 p.m. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations. Lunch main dishes $2.75 to $4.50; dinner main dishes $3.75 to $7.50.
For people who want their movies to continue after the last fade-out, Chez Maria seems like the epilogue they seek. The courtly displaced Frenchman, played by Maurice Chevalier, was last seen bidding farewell to his jungle homeland and setting off with his beautiful Asian wife for a new life.
The next scene is Georgetown, with the wife played by Maria Grison and Chevalier played by her husband, struggling to make ends meet in yet another Vietnamese restaurant-Georgetown already had four-with brave, cheerful Maria at the stove. Grison is telling war stories as he pours vintage champagne ($1.50 a glass) and offering a wry history of the French revolution as he serves a communard (red wine and cassis; ask for it dry, unless you like very sweet aperitifs) and joking about renaming the drink a Redskin.
Chez Maria is full of familiarity and contradictions. The French posters on the walls hardly detract, merely introduce another note to the rainbow mural that reminds us of the restaurant's Gate Soup Kitchen days. The tables are set with fresh daffodils or mums on brown tablecloths. Even with the Vietnamese background music, the room retains the fresh naturalness of its soup kitchen origins. Herb teas remain on the menu. The kitchen is still open to full view of the dining room, not only rendering the cooking visible, but also keeping Maria in touch with the diners, much as an open kitchen allows a home chef to join the party.
Despite menus and waiters, Chez Maria has strong dinner party overtones. At least when the restaurant has had the leisure of unfilled tables, the Grisons have attended closely to the dinners, overseeing and recommending,pouring another glass of wine, showing how to extricate shrimp paste from its sugar cane core and wrap it in rice paper. When guests want to taste each other's dishes, Maria is there with extra plates and bowls, portioning and serving.At first the kitchen was slow and the dining room staff forgetful, but later vists enriched the courtliness with efficiency.
By now Washingtonians are worldly wise about Vietnamese menus, and this one is little different from the dozen others in town, except that it is hyphenated with French dishes-pate, snails, onion and vegetables soups, quiche, coq au vin, creme caramel. Even these dishes, however, have Asian undercurrents such as curry in the beef bourguignon.
Dinner at Maria's house should begin with imperial rolls, paper-thin and paper-white dough wrappers rolled around rice and pork with large pink shrimp silhouetted and scallions threaded through them. Served cold, they are salad-fresh and crunchy with coriander. Shrimp toast, too, is an uncommonly good dish, Maria's version being tiny french bread croustades spread with minced shrimp and crisply fried. You could start with the traditional beef and rice noodle soup, subtly flavored with anise and coriander, layered with barely cooked beef slices and noodles. But the bowl is so large that it becomes more than a starter, a whole meal. Maria's also serves those fragile Vietnamese spring rolls, good ones, well stuffed with pork, crab and noodles. And there are charcoal-flavored skewered meats and shrimp, peppery and juicy. The pate, too, is intriguing, more like rillettes than the usual pate.only the vegetables soup lacked excitement among the appetizers we tried.
Main courses beg for more careful treading.The differences between a number of dishes are sublte-sauteed pork, chicken with lemon grass, scallops with tomatoes, garlic and pastis are all in the stir-fry mode, all peppery and highly perfumed with herbs, all cooked to juiciness, but none standing out in the crowd. Shrimp dishes have varied in quality, the sauteed spicy shrimps one day small and dry and tasting of little but ketchup, the fried shrimp another day a full dozen shrimps of respectable size, in a light crunch of batter with an aromatic, mildly hot red sauce. Filet of sole, too, has been dry and dull on an early visit, succulent later.
The best of the main courses are those uniquely Vietnamese in their style as well as their flavor. Vietnamese crepe, for instance, though on one visit bland, is more likely to be subtly but definitely seasoned shrimps, pork and bean sprouts bursting from a thin, crunchy rice flour crepe. Bun Thit Nuong is a bowl of cold rice noodles blanketed with shreded cucumbers, lettuce and bean sprouts, herbed with fresh coriander and mint, topped with charcoal-grilled meats. Maria pours over it her "special sauce" primarily the clear fish sauce that is the Vietnamese version of soy sauce, and tosses it at the table. It is an ideal warm weather supper.
Special attention spills out all over Chez Maria, and nowhere clearer than on th wine list. Besides the bargain-priced champagne by the glass, you can order any of eight wines by the glass, ranging from 95 cents to $2.50, and chosen to suit the food. The bottle list includes nearly two dozen wines, most of them under $8, and one white Burgundy for $4.25, some of the lowest mark-ups seen in Washington. Even the beers range from Alastian to Thai. There are five springs waters and an assortment of teas from ginseng to jasmine.
Finally, the desserts are eclectic enough to include a ripe French brie with good bread to fresh pineapple deep fried and flames at the table. There is a fragile, proper creme caramel and the house special (which, even they admit, appeals to a limited audience) of gelatinous seaweed morsels and water chestnuts floating in a light, sweet coconut milk sea.
A meal at Chez Maria is one of those that adss up to more than any particular dish might imply. From the plate of puffed fried shrimp chips brought withyour aperitif, to the excellent coffee served in a mug, Chez Maria always seems to give a little more than expected. The food is prettily garnished with carved vegetables. If one day the chicken is mealy or the fish dry, it is presented with such a sense of generosity and concern that you are inclined to give it another chance. While a complete dinner, once you have been tempted by the wine list and intrigued by the desserts, can cost more than $15 a person, one could dine with no stinting for under $10. One wonderswhat Georgetown needs with another Vietnamese restaurant-until one tries Chez Maria.