Open Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to midnight; Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to midnight. All major credit cards. Reservations. Prices: Main courses range from $4.95 to $7.95. Average dinner with wine, tax and tip, $15 to $20 a person.
Before you dismiss this as just another new French restaurant opening downtown, look closely at the menu of Le Manouche. In between the onion soup and mousse au chocolat are borscht, chicken Kiev, stuffed cabbage and a salmon in puff pastry -- Eastern European dishes that give Le Manouche a welcome family resemblance to the Serbian Crown.
But Le Manouche is both farther downtown and farther down the price scale than the Serbian Crown. In fact its purest asset is its prices. For a Dupont Circle restaurant with tablecloths and candles, right on Connecticut Avenue and heavy with ambition, Le Manouche has some remarkable prices: Snails in mushroom caps are $2.50. Soups, from onion to borschut, are $1.50. The saumon en croute, sauce au champagne is $7.25, about half what it costs elsewhere. Veal and duck dishes are less than $8. The wine list has Hungary's Egri Bikavar for $6.50, a half-dozen pleasant if undistinguished French wines for $5.75 to $9.95 and a similar number of California wines at similar prices. Thus, a meal of character and satisfaction, with a bottle of wine and three courses, could cost a couple under $30.
That meal takes place in a room paneled in rustic, unfinished wood like a country inn, with white walls and similarly unobtrusive paintings. The Muzak is about as unobtrusive as it can be, which is still too obtrusive for me. The tablecloths would look more effective without paper placemats over them. But the brass-edged sconces and candles lighting the room lend a romantic cast, and the few small flowers on the table add charm. It is a modest-looking restaurant, but dressed sufficiently for anyone's evening out. The service is more willing than experienced, but the waiters' and waitresses' good nature compensates for their sometimes not knowing how to pour wine.
Greater experience shows in the kitchen, where it counts. This not one of the hot contenders for blue ribbons among French restaurants, but it serves good food for the price and sometimes leaps far above its average.
To start, avoid going to Le Manouche on a Monday. One day we tried; the larder was depleted and the kitchen seemed tired. Better yet, give them a couple of weeks and see if they have perked up their Mondays after a public admonishing.
Appetizers are not the restaurant's strong suit, though the choice is broad. Mussels had been reported to be excellent, but mine were sandy and weary. Brains ravigotte were decently prepared, their vinaigrette properly sharp, but they lacked distinction, and would have looked better in smaller pieces than a whole lobe. In addition to baby shrimps provencale, pate, snails and smoked salmon, there are always fresh artichoke hearts, quartered and served cold in a spicy, oily tomato sauce, good but in need of more careful trimming of the choke. And there are daily specials such as herring and celeriac remoulade, unexciting but appealing enough. More memorable are the soups, a creamy pink fish soup better than most shrimp or lobster bisques around town, and a borscht that is hot and tart, with julienne of beets and cabbage and bits of meat. Light but vibrant, it is a good winter introduction to the restaurant.
Duck sounds compelling on the menu, sometimes with prunes, other times with olives or with walnuts. But at both lunch and dinner its crisp skin hid stringly meat that tasted reheated and was sauced indifferently. Veal and beef have also been disappointing, the veal a la creme being pounded nearly to a mush and covered with a thick brown sauce that was misnamed as well as misguided. Having heard raves about the beef with peppercorns, I was surprised to find the meat overcooked and served in a sea of brown gravy adrift with whole black peppercorns that were as annoying as watermelon seeds. But among the meat dishes -- besides the kidneys with port and chicken Kiev, which I had no chance to taste -- the stuffed cabbage is as comforting as a grandmother, its meat chopped and mixed with rice, the sauce tomato-based but not too sweet or acid, the whole lovely, homey dish ribboned with sour cream.
Besides stuffed cabbage, seafoods show the kitchen at its best. The salmon in pastry accomplishes that rare concurrence of well-crisped flaky pastry with fish that is soft and moist rather than overcooked. With duxelles inside and a float of winey cream sauce on top, it is delicious, a dish that few restaurants prepare so well. Shrimps are cooked just as carefully to retain moistness and a fresh bite, whether with tarragon and cream at dinner, or at lunch one day as a bearnaise-sauced kebab. Daily fish specials are likely to be sea trout or bluefish, skillfully cooked but sometimes lost in their casseroles of creamy sauce and garnishes of grapes or mussels. Still, at around $6, they are very good buys for fresh fish. Fresh vegetables are used at Le Manouche, but twice the garlicky string beans have been over-cooked, and once two kinds of potatoes were served with a single fish dish. The direction is right, but turns are missed here and there.
With dessert comes forgiveness, at least if you have saved room for pastry. On apple strudel days, you will have the good fortune to get buttery paper-thin dough that flakes with the touch of a fork, enclosing tart apples unsullied by anything a strudel doesn't need. Raspberry tart one day was regal; the cookie crust was crumbling from its butter, like a Christmas cookie, and its restrained adornments -- a touch of custard and a painting of currant glaze -- showed the berries at their best. An almond pie, as flaky as the strudel, held a delicate almond custard. The mousses and pears in red wine are better than average, and the cheesecake, though dry, is nice; but none compare to the tarts and strudels. The coffee is good enough to complement them.
In all, Le Manouche is a flawed but promising French restaurant with a Russian accent, about what you would hope from a neighborhood restaurant. Fortunately, its neighborhood happens to be downtown.