Open Monday through Friday, 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 6 to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations. Free valet dinner parking. Prices: Lunch main courses $6.50 to $14; dinner main courses average $13.Pre- and post-theater four-course dinners $12.95 plus drinks, tax and tip; but a la carte dinners average $30 and up including wine, tax and tip.
The best hiding place is sometimes a place so obvious that nobody bothers to look there. So if you want to know where Art Bachwald is hiding at lunch these days, along with other defectors from downtown restaurants that have been resting on their overripe laurels, look into the White House -- the French one, that is, the Maison Blanche.
Last year the Maison Blanche opened across from the Executive Office Building, with a sea of flowered carpeting covering its very expensive ground, with a famed New York chef, and with culinary elaborations of pastry crusts and pastry crests and pastry carts. The food did not live up to its promises, and the restaurant suffered from that awkward first impression.
Since then a new chef, new menu and some new procedures have reversed Maison Blanche's fortunes.It has quietly and gradually become a very fine restaurant, its cuisine stably settled among those French restaurants just below Le Pavillon, Le Lion d'Or and Jean Louis, keeping company with Jean-Pierre, Le Bagatelle, Dominique's and Rive Gauche on its good days. And the luxuriance of Maison Blanche's space allows more comfort and privacy than all but a few.
Now, with a $12.95 pre- and post-theater fixed price dinner (6 to 8 p.m. and 10 to 11 p.m.), Maison Blanche joins Dominique's in offering very fine affordable dinners that sacrifice none of the amentities of grand dining.
Maison Blanche has developed a sumptuous wine list, with extensive offerings of top vintages, and if you are prepared to spend $30 to $50 a bottle, you can find some good buys such as a '62 Chambolle Musigny for $43. While most of the red wines are $20 and up, the whites include wines of the Loire and Alsace for about $12 and a house label for $10. Unfortunately, the carafe wine is $6 for a very small carafe. So, like Dominique's bargain-priced $8.95 pre-theater dinner, Maison Blanche's increases the bill precipitously with its wines.
Otherwise, you would suffer little from limiting your order to the $12.95 dinner. Appetizers include six choices, from simple oysters mignonette and caesar salad to a complex pate centered with smooth heart of liver, a contrast of flavor and texture provided by chunks of ham and pistachios. It is one of the town's most elegant pate maison, served with napkin-wrapped toast and tiny, glistening nicoise olives as well as cornichons. The mussels ravigote are similarly outstanding, being plump and fresh, moistened with a light vinaigrette and plenty of shallots.
Following appetizers is a salad of Boston lettuce with subtle vinaigrette. The main course choices are also six: trout meuniere, sauteed chicken with basil, tartar steak, quenelle, thin beef filets with sauce bordelaise and half a duck in cassis sauce. Not all of these dishes are on the a la carte menu, and when they are, the portions may be larger -- a whole baby duck rather than half, for instance. But since a la carte main courses start at $12, the value of this fixed price dinner is obvious. Furthermore, there is no stinging on quality. The beef is thinly sliced and sauteed perfectly, served with slices of marrow and a glorious dark, intense bordelaise. One night the quenelle was a deflated heavy mass, but its sauce Armoricaine was creamy and soundly peppered, well imbued with the scent of lobster. Flawless food this is not, but its level is high.And the fixed price dessert offers the full -- and impressive -- choice from the rolling cart, with a surcharge only for fresh berries.
Whether you are ordering from the fixed price or a la carte menus, you should sample this chef's duck with cassis. The a la carte version at $12.50 is an entire fresh baby duckling roasted to a surface crispness and underlying moistness, carved at the table and bedded on wild rice. The currant sauce is fruity but quite tart, and the interplay of crisp and soft, rich and acid are supreme compliments to the duck.
Should you stray further into the a la carte menu, you will find chateaubriand cooked in a crust of salt and served with two sauces and pommes soufflees ($29.50 for two), quail ($13.25), truffled chicken ($13), tripe ($11.95), scallops with julienne of leeks in vermouth ($12.25), along with the more usual veal scallops, tournedos, lamp chops and Dover sole. On the list of daily specials, though, are even grander adventures: crayfish floating in a copper pot of nantua sauce; roasted loin of veal with fresh wild mushrooms; saddle of rabbit; even country style casseroles of pork with cabbage and turnips. Maison Blanche procures fresh white asparagus and spaghetti-thin baby green beans, along with the most perfect Persian melons I have tasted and exotica such as cape gooseberries for its sherberts.
Some lapses are found -- cold trout marinated in white wine that was far too acid to eat, those weighty quenelles, overcooked and roughly executed oysters Bienville, some pastries that lack the buttery richness their appearance implies. But most often the food lives up to its creative intentions. Sauces are delicate in texture, complex and bold in flavor. Ingredients, from the crayfish to the veal, are impeccable. Standard dishes such as lobster bisque can be exceptional. Don't expect greatness among the mousses and soufflees, but seek dishes whose accomplishments lie in the intricacy and balance of flavors -- soups, meat or fish pates, sherbets. Cold dishes are prettily designed, from the two-color seafood pate to the checkerboard brown and white chocolate mousse cake. The chief is engaging his imagination and presenting more than cliches, being experimental without slipping into the outrageous. The Maison Blanche kitchen is classic French, but it serves more than the obvious classic dishes.
Among Washington's culinary advances in the last decade is the pastry cart. Maison Blanche presents a decorative array, and the pastries are reasonably good but not as wonderful as they look. The best of the desserts are likely to be the homemade sherberts, which one day included kiwi, lime, cape gooseberry, peach, a superb pear and even more delightful peach with red wine. Even on the fixed price dinner, dessert is followed with a tray of homemade cookies and chocolate truffles which have been steadily improving over the months.
Dinner at Maison Blanche, a full dinner from the a la carte menu with wine, will accumulate $30 to $50 a person, though the fixed price dinner will be half that. In either case, the service will be smoothly professional. On weekday evenings, when potentially slow nights have become busy, service has lagged because of insufficient staff. But that is a problem one expects to find in a restaurant with an erratic beginning. Lunch has generally been busy, and the staff is well attuned to the pace.
The dining room is traditional, with tufted black leather banquettes and staid paintings, flowers on the large tables and carts for tableside preparation rolling through the wide expanses. Proper but not imaginative, it is nevertheless a well-dressed restaurant with a golden glow and quiet demeanor, a new place to consider for grand dining.