Open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 6 to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 6 to 10:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations. Prices: Main courses at lunch $5.25 to $8.50, at dinner $8.50 to $13.
One more new French restaurant downtown. Someone has done it again -- brought a French chef from New York; filled two small rooms with plush banquettes (this time brown) and brass lamps; packed a menu with pates, fish filets with grapes or green pepper-corns, caesar salad, rack of lamb; hired a group of black-tie waiters who speak varying mother tongues and some English. They call it La Maree, and focus its attention on fish. And, after its first months of oeration, it is almost full and almost good.
Before my first visit to La Maree I called to ask if they had a cheese tray. Yes, I was told, they had Tomme de Savoie, a pleasant cheese of the Savoie region of France. At lunch that day I ordered cheese; the waiter said they had none. A little later we were told that they indeed had cheese, a Tomme de Savoie. We ordered it, but the waiter balked, warning us that what they had was an unappealing assortment of cheese.We ask to see it anyway -- and he brought out Tomme de Savoie. We also ordered desserts. Three times. When they finally came, they were two extremely good buttercream cakes, the best part of the meal. And the waiter informed us we would not be charged for dessert since its delivery had been so delayed and confused.
That's La Maree, full of surprises, happy and unhappy ones in about equal measure.
Take, for instance, the flowers. White roses edged in red, they look like fakes but they are real. Too good to be true. Then, the butter dishes are delightful hinged silver shells. But if you should happen to finish the butter (which you may, since the bread is excellent and the appetizers can be long in coming), the dish is so top-heavy it falls over and spills its melted ice.
The wine list is a thoughtful choice of French and American wines with some good buys and fine small vineyards represented. But your waiter may know nothig about the wines, and when you finally find out the vintages available, they are likely to be of cradle-robbing youth. Still, there is a nice Alsatian Gewurztraminer for less than $10, and the St. Emilion at $11 is rewarding after it has breathed in the glass a while.
Service speeds up, then grinds to a halt. One waiter is charmingly helpful, another unable to communicate in more than minimal English. A waiter interrupts conversations in his zeal to ask after your welfare, then ignores attempts to get coffee or the check. One waiter rushes back to your table to tell you fresh swordfish has just arrived in the kitchen, and another neglects to tell you there are daily specials.
But the cornerstone is the food. It, too, is on shifting ground.
The specialty of the chef, says the menu, is confit de canard. It is a rare dish in Washington, available only at one or two other restaurants. And at La Maree it is nicely done. The duck, preserved in its own fat, is as red as ham, rich and unctuous. The best part, though, is the potatoes and mushrooms sauteed in the same fat and permeated with duck aroma. Each day has its own seafood special -- Monday, flounder with sorrel (the restaurant makes no pretense at serving sole, but admits that it is flounder), Friday, bouillabaisse. Bouillabaisse is one of the restaurant's best efforts. Its broth is well-laced with fennel flavor, light and fragrant. Alongside comes a garlicky homemade mayonnaise to enrich the broth, and buttery croutons to absorb the juices. As for the seafoods in the broth, there are chunks of swordfish and other less identifiable fish, a clam or two, a few shrimps and scallops, a few mussels -- nothing extravagant like lobster, but beautiful, barely cooked seafods. In contrast is the parrillade catalane, supposedly served with the same garlicky mayonnaise-like aioli, and bearing similar seafoods. But this broiled melange was cooked dry and drowned in an acid tomato sauce that masked whatever fish flavor there might have been.
So continue the ups and downs. A mixed grill at $12.75 consisted of a miniature lamb chop, a rare but flimsy steak and a grilled shrimp dosed with garlic and parsley butter. Where were the bacon and liver the menu promised? They had been forgotten, but appeared after a complaint, and rendered the mix worthy.
But the feature of the menu is fish filets, and they tend to be nicely limber, fresh and juicy, sometimes sauced with flair (tomatoes, green peppers, capers and the like) and sometimes stultified in bland cream. The best main dish I have tried at La Maree was plain grilled swordfish -- freshness and timing rendered culinary miracles that seem simple but requre care. Sauces are inconsistent; at lunch a flounder with noodles and oregano incorporated enough cream and herbs to suace the dish elegantly. Yet others have been insipid. And a daily special of scallops steamed with vegetables in wine-and-cream sauce, so often done excellently in French restaurants nowadays, was a clumsily cut mix of carrots and celery with slightly tough scallops and forgettable sauce. There are compensations -- a succulent ratatouille, for example -- and appetizers and desserts add drama.
Appetizers, if you are lucky, include specials like a salmon terrine with ribbons of pink salmon between briny, peppercorn-spiked forcemeat layers. Or you might start with shrimps in an intense pink cream attractively bordered with piped whipped potatoes, the sauce better than the tasteless tiny shrimps. The pates can be good, particularly if they are left to warm to room temperature, though the mousse de foie tastes no better than the usual canned versions. Mussels may be garlicked or served cold in a light remoulade. Fish soup is as good as the bouillabaisse except that it has been insufficiently reduced.
Whatever has gone before, much is forgiven with dessert. La Maree has found a proficient pastry chef.A charlotte I encountered had been refrigerated so long that its flavor faded and a chocolate cake was dry one day, a pear torte an unsettling green and unkempt. But usually the buttercream-frosted cakes are jewel-perfect, sophisticated productions of liqueurs and butter, and the feuillete is as close as Washington comes to a napoleon as proud as its namesake. The puff pastry is browned, buttery and crisp, layered with berries and jams and custards, sugared and decorated with a grill used to caramelize the surface. Leave well enough alone at that point; La Maree serves some of the worst espresso I have ever encountered, though sometimes it improves to mere indifference.
Desserts are reasonably priced at $2.50, and a souffle of impressive height (if unimpressive density) is $3.75 and enough for two. Appetizers average $3 or $4, so a full dinner is likely to cost at least $25 a person.
La Maree has some good resources to tap in its kitchen and dining room, but does not yet use them to consistent advantage. If it keeps trying, I'll keep trying it. But the public expects more than try-outs for its money.