Open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. MC, V. Reservations accepted for dinner. Prices: Full dinner with taxes and tip about $20 to $25 a person.
Let it be recorded that in spring of 1979, there came to Montgomery County a restaurant of distinction that was neither Chinese nor Italian, that was -- let it further be recorded -- actually French. And thus one of the nagging mysteries of our time was, if not solved, at least erased from the books. No longer need we wonder why a high-quality French restaurant never took root in this county of wealth and sophistication.
La Miche is the answer. La Mache was born on the architectural fundation of Positano, from a wedding of the owners of Jean-Pierre and the Bread Oven, and the offspring bears a happy resemblance to both.
Except for the etched scrollwork on the windows that matches the downtown Bread Oven's logo, there is no external hint of La Miche's clever interior. Rough, pale wooden beams turn Bethesda office architecture into a vision of a farmhouse, with baskets hung from every rafter. On some walls are flowered cafe curtains, on other walls bucolic wallpaper. And amid this carefully ministered rusticity is a tinted mirrored wall on which a bar window seems to float, apparently dispensing drinks from nowhere. This little space age touch somehow works, accenting rather than destroying the country air like the rocket ships one sometimes spots in the skies of contemporary primitive paintings.
La Miche's counterpoint of ingenuousness and sophistication strikes an intriguing balance in several aspects of the restaurant from the service to the cooking.
Waitress wear T-shirts with the restaurant's logo; their accents are French, their manner effervescent, their delivery smooth and expert. They are as hospitable as the proverbial farm wife, although on one occassion one was so overzealous that each course appeared before the previous one was finished. It is a rare French dinner one can eat in under an hour for four courses, but such is the brisk pace at La Miche.
Fitting with the small restaurant's casual style is its small menu -- five standing appetizers and six main dishes plus few daily specials. Main courses, averaging$9 but climbing to $13 for one day's special of lobster with beurre blanc, are familiar fare: poached trout with champagne sauce, rockfish grilled with herbs, veal scallops with cream and herbs, filet mignon with red wine butter and shallots, country-style duck and Cornish hen grilled with mustard. Appetizers are more adventurous, starting with oysters poached with orange butter at $3.50. The four oysters are small and predictably overcooked, but their sauce is light and creamy, elusively orange-scented, better than the oysters it moistens. A related sauce -- slightly grainy but elegantly flavored with shallots and butter -- provides a pool for four shrimp, in this case cooked to ideal suppleness. There is an artichoke vinaigrette, prettily cupping the sauce and edged with parsley, one of the few really well-executed restaurant versions of this deceptively simple dish.
A diversion for bread. At La Miche it plays a prominent role, the baguettes being the Bread Oven's excellent product, crusty and glutenous. But brioche and croissants are also used to advantage as appetizers, serving as containers for wine-sauced chicken livers and saffron-tinged scallops, respectively. They are cunning appetizers, $4 each, falling short of the ideal through overcooked scallops and insufficient liver, but worth trying. Finally among the appetizers are soups, remarkably good soups, at $1.75 to $2 for bowls big enough to spoil your appetite for the next course.
Before the main courses another diversion for dessert. It is time to order a souffle. At $3.75, and large enough to share, they are a bargain, and excellent preparations, high and moist and brown-edged. Chocolate, lemon or orange, each appropriately sauced, the souffles are the best desserts on the menu.
Getting back to the meat and potatoes, the duck, confit de carnard, is deliciously browned in its own fat to crispness with no underlying layer of fat, the meat plump and juicy. With it are potatoes and mushrooms soaking up the savoury flavors. The brown sauce adds little, but otherwise the preparation brings out the utmost character of the duck. In general, brown sauces at La Miche are less interesting than the meats they accompany, while cream sauces enhance the seafoods they cover. One day's special of lamb chops was cooked just as ordered [though in need of trimming], but sauced too heavily; another day's grilled lobster was perfectly timed to avoid drying the meat, and served with a soft cloud of white butter sauce. Once the kitchen learns to time its seafood cooking more consistently -- rockfish grilled with fresh fennel was grilled past its peak -- those dishes will star. Cornish hen, too is an agreeable light dish for summer, the bird partly boned, flattened and covered with mustard and bread crumbs for the grilling.
Potatoes -- well-prepared -- and a vegatable -- perhaps grilled tomato or fresh fennel -- garnish the plates. To finish, besides souffles, there is a highly caramelized tarte tatin, the tart apples with just enough sugar, but the crust unfortunately soggy. The less said about the creme brulee the better; it is a square of custard swamped in a perfect imitation of dark Karo syrup.
In all, a meal at La Miche is a treat. If there is one sticky problem, it is the wine list, which may explain the Montgomery County dearth of French restaurants after all. The choice is slim and the prices are high, most wines being about $12 and not worth it. Carafe wines -- Almaden, I was told -- are $6. The problem is one of state liquor laws, but one hopes La Miche will find a way to work it out better than it has so far.
Bethesdans have hopes for La Miche; they hope it will open on Sunday, perhaps for brunch, that its pace will relax, that its wine list will fill out, that it won't become overcrowded or lets its standards lapse. But mostly they hope it will continue doing what it is doing, for it has been sorely needed in Bethesda.