Champagne open for lunch Monday through Friday and Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 6 to 10:30 p.m. Beaujolais open for breakfast weekdays 7 to 9 a.m. and weekends 8 to 10:30 a.m.; for lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner daily, 6 to 10:30 p.m. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Reservations. Free valet parking for dinner. Price: Champagne, lunch $7.50 to $13, dinner $16 fixed price for three-course meal, brunch $8 to $15. Beaujolais, breakfast $2.75 to $5.95, lunch and dinner $4.50 to $11 for main courses.
We old timers (which, in Washington, means we have lived here more than five years) remember when you had to ask in a restaurant, "Do you have wine?" In contrast, Washington starts the Elegant Eighties with a new restaurant complex that is devoted to wine, named after wine, celebrates wine.
Champagne and Beaujolais face each other across the hall in the newly refurbished One Washington Circle Hotel, playing off the formal and informal, sedate and lively moods implied by the wines that lend them their names. Having the same kitchen and overlapping in their dishes, both even being entertained by the same piano in the hall, the two restaurants share the same assets and flaws. Yet each has a distinct personality. And each serves its own purpose well, it not ideally. Beaujolais
Its glass walls curving into a ceiling over the wine bar, Beaujolais is as sunny as a greenhouse, but restraints the metaphor with warm navy and burgundy banquettes and navy walls alternating with champagne velvet panels. In case you are inclined to overlook the wine motif, navy linen napkins are ringed with paper bearing the restaurant's logo and topped with a gift of a folding Beaujolais corkscrew. That is only the beginning of the restaurant's endearing little surprises. The '70s wearied us with theme restaurants and turned us wary of gimmicks, but Beaujolais refreshes one's faith in themes by carrying out this one with taste and wit. And if the tables are tiny and close, well, that, too, is part of the theme of this lively and socialble bistro.
Waiters and waitresses wear blue French wine merchants' coats, and all the wines are French. But this restaurant is decidedly American, from the ingenuous zeal of the waiters and waitresses to the menu that leaps from hamburger on French garlic bread with herbal mayonnaise to salade mikado with shrimp, snow peas, spinach and vinaigrette. The dishes, most of them relatively French, are clever American adapations.
Lunch or dinner should start with a taste of wine, or tastes of several wines. For $1, you can taste three different wines, thus choose you glass or bottle from experience. At least half a dozen wines a day are available by the glass, though some are an intimidating $2.50 or $3. The list of bottles includes seven 1978 beaujolais, and invigorating variety but a bit stiffy priced at $8 to $13. A few other inexpensive reds, some very pleasant choices among whites for about $10, three champagnes and a rose round out the regular list, to which specials are added. It is a modest list, but chosen with good purpose. And the wine is served as carefully as all this emphasis would imply.
Ah, were the food so carefully chosen and prepared, the story would end more happily. Actually, as you will see, the ending is the happiest part of Beaujolais. The beginning is a choice of contrivances, like chicken liver terrine in half an avocado or brie wrapped in lettuce leaves and heated to melting. The brie works very well; the terrine would work if the livers were less bitter, the avocado riper, the watercress garnish not yellowed. The most standard appetizer is mussels with garlic-parsley butter, and it is fine, if not usually free of sand. The eggplant caviar with walnuts is a dreadful mess of dry, tasteless minced eggplant full of chewy bits of skin and only a pleasantly nutty undertone to save it. At $2.75 to $3.50, the appetizers demand higher standards.
Main dishes cover a wider range of prices and accomplishments. For around $5 you can get a larger order of mussels; the French-accented hamburger; a pita sandwich with tuna, olives, egg and anchovy; or salads of chicken and broccoli or beef. The beef salad presents an enormous amount of julienned beef of good quality in a pretty red cabbage leaf. The dressing tastes based on homemade mayonnaise, and all is well -- or nearly well. The problem is that the flavors are upstaged by green pepper left to marinate with the beef until it permeates, overwhelms. The scallions, too, have turned strong and shrill. Maybe a shorter marination or adding the minced vegetables nearer to serving time would solve the problem of this almost-delicious dish.Its side dish of ripe tomatoes, raw zucchini and red onions with olive oil and parsley dressing needs no advice. But similar problems plague the more expensive main dishes, too.The fresh fish is cooked and impressively served in a parchment envelope. The flesh is moist and very lightly cooked, but its coating of shredded leek, citrus peel, onion and carrot hide rather than highlight the flavor and impart a bitterness, from peel that is too old or cut so thickly that it includes the white pith. In any case, the dish just misses, though the soft, airy orange hollandaise comes close to pulling off a rescue. Elsewhere on the menu are near-successes (calf's liver with mustard and watercress cream -- a tantalizing sharp creamy sauce bathing liver clumsily cut and badly trimmed) and close calls (chicken salad with the meat also clumsily cut and badly trimmed, its broccoli limp and its tarragon gritty but the mayonnaise excellent). The attempt is admirable, with all of the ingredients fresh and the presentations beautiful. But one gets the impression that the kitchen is cooking by instructions rather than by instinct, so the small adjustments necessary from day to day or dish to dish are not considered.
The staff's greatest enthusiasm seems to be over dessert. And it is not misplaced. The mocha fudge torte is a wedge of superlative dense, moist, nutted brownie, decorated with a pale chocolate frosting -- not up to the cake's standards -- and nearly covered with creme fraiche. Lemon nut cake has some days lacked sufficient lemon to liven it, but at its best it is an airy ground nut cake, nearly a souffle, with a zesty acid ouch. The staff warns against the Stilton butter with fruit so adamantly that I never had the heart to contradict.
As delicious an environment Beaujolais provides for relaxed eating and drinking, it is not worth the price of $15 to $20 for a full meal with wine, at least until the kitchen mellows. A light meal, though, with a glass of wine, and a bill of under $10, provides a lot of tasteful surroundings for the money. Champagne
As the name denotes a color theme as well as the wine and mood theme, Champagne is quieted by carpeting, softened by sofas and cushioned chairs and suedecloth banquettes, an elegant small dining room of about a dozen tables. The glass wall in this restaurant lights a bank of azaleas in bloom. The lushness of a large orchid plant and the glitter of inlaid glass door frames reflect a taste-at-all-cost attitude that promises Champagne will age into a full, rich maturity. It does clearly, however, need the aging to soften the rough edges in its food and service.
Service is formal, but suffers from awkwardness, with the waiter repeating the very same descriptions printed on the menu and sounding therefore like a hard-sell. However, the lavishness of attention lubricates the works, with careful placement of plates and frequent removal of used dishes and refilling of wine glasses, constant stock being taken of your welfare.
The menu at dinner is fixed-price, $16 for a three-course meal with coffee. The choices are narrower than at Beaujolais: four appetizers and five main courses; one evening by 9 p.m. even the scallops with hazelnuts, garlic and lemon (which sounded intriguing) were unavailable, and the bouillabaise was being served without scallops, leaving only shrimp and fish, not enough to save it from being an insipid version of pale pink fish stew.
But to back up, a meal here properly starts with champagne. The wine list offers three red wines of varying grandeur, eight whites that are a nice variety, and a back page of some extraordinary bottles. But the greatest interest is in the champagne list, fourteen imports at restained prices, from $17 for non-vintage Charbaut et Fils Brut to $59 for '71 Dom Perignon, which sells for up to $85 elsewhere in town. An excellent bottle for the price is the Roederer "Jamin" Brut, nonvintage, at $22.
Once the evening starts bubbling so happily, move on to the cold pasta with herbal mayonnaise. The noddles taste homemade, a bit heavy-handed, but very good; the dressing is rich and tart, crunchy with herbs and shallots plus bits of mushrooms. It helps you to understand why cold noodle dishes are becoming so fashionble. Otherwise, the appetizers are the same fish and vegetable soups, mussels or salade vinaigrette served in Beaujolais. All pretty good, but none memorable.
The fall menu listed one extraordinarily good main course that ought to be brought back by popular demand: veal with turnips, the perfectly cooked pale meat scallops moistened with a sauce of creame fraische and armagnac and smothered in nearly crisp julienned turnips, was an inspired combination. The winter menu's veal with eggplant, alternating slices of meat and vegetable, was well prepared but not nearly as interesting. Calf's liver with mustard and watercress cream and filet steak with bearnaise (at a $2.95 supplement) are well made of good ingredients, and at dinner the liver was much better cut than at a Beaujolais lunch, though the sauce lacked the richness and pungence of the first try.
The menu needs a salad course, but the vegetables that accompany main courses are highlights, whether fresh green beans or broccoli, both equally crisp and buttery. And the thinly sliced potatoes baked with cream to a melting interior and crusty surface, are wonderful.
Like Beaujolais, Champagne ends with a sparkle of dessert, in fact, the same desserts. Also on the menu is a walnut torte, thin and crisp and surrounded by creme fraiche, but it is far too sweet for its own good. The newest dessert, and a very pleasant one, is oranges and bananas in creme fraiche with Cointreau and orange peel.
If you succumb to the champagnes, dinner will cost $30 a person or more. So far, the kitchen needs more polishing to make it worth the cost, especially given the limited choices. But parts of the menu are worthy, and the environment carries the evening.
As for Sunday brunch, when the flowery room provides a serene and sunny invitation to lingering, the menu's enchantment is only verbal; the dishes in reality were bland disappointments, from the $11 scrambled eggs with smoked salmon to the $8 eggs maltaise. The kitchen staff seemed to have decided that even salt would offent a Sunday morning palate. Chicken salad with avocado, zuccini, romaine and bacon was the most nearly successful dish, but salad is not everyone's idea of a brunch dish. The price includes a single croissant or brioche and an appetizer of the oranges and bananas that form dessert at dinner, or a green salad. Slim pickings for the price.
Both Champagne and Beaujolais are beautiful showplaces, and both are getting by on their personality, but need to settle down to work a little harder.