Open for lunch Monday through Friday, noon to 3 p.m.; for tea Monday through Saturday, 2:30 to 6 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.; for brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. No credit cards. Reservations for dinner only. Prices: Main courses $3.75 to $5 for lunch, $3.75 to $8 for dinner, $4.75 for brunch (including wine or other beverage).
One is inclined to think kindly of Country Living Cafe. It was the first restaurant in its shopping neighborhood (though now there are two). It is reasonably priced, with most main courses $5. It is simple and casual. And its weekly cycle of daily specials is an improved version of the Bread Oven's successful format.
What gets in the way of one's kindly inclination, however, is that the food is not very good. Oh, once in a while a good dish gives you hope, but just when you think the kitchen has its problems licked, you sink your fork back into something that could have been easily done better, probably by almost anyone who can tie on an apron.
Example one is Wednesday's roti de porc. Now, pork is too often ignored in Washington kitchens, so Country Living is to be congratulated for remembering that it exists. And $5 is a modest price for roast pork, even though the three slices are a modest portion. The pale meat is good, roasted to retain moistness and resting in its pan juices. But those pan juices are too watery, and the pork has been spread, I can't imagine why, with canned applesauce. A small dish of applesauce on the side instead would have prevented the ruination of the dish.
Every day three specials are available: one country-style (rabbit in white wine, veal goulash, coq au vin, couscous or estouffade de boeuf), one fish (sole, shrimp, rockfish, fish tart or trout) and one meat or poultry (London broil, chicken crepe, chicken with vinegar, saddle of rabbit or the roast pork). And a steak with french fries is always on the menu at the same $5. Additionally, lunchtime and dinnertime offer quiche, pates, Italian sausage or chef's salad for $3.75, and dinner presents four everyday choices of steak, duck, veal or scallops for $7.95. That is the entire menu, except for a dozen kinds of coffees, teas and desserts. Weekend brunches offer six choices at $4.75 including wine or nonalcoholic beverage.
Some culinary touches save Country Living. Besides the roast pork, the coq au vin has been generous and juicy, its dark winy sauce and bacon-topped crouton savory. Rabbit in white wine with bacon and onions was strongly flavored with vinegar and cloves, agreeably homespun if not memorable.And the Italian sausage, served on a bed of cabbage, was wonderfully spicy with black pepper and fennel, lean and well-browned. The pates are Toni's excellent versions manufactured in Glover Park. At dinner, the veal with lemon sauce was high-quality meat in a lacy egg coating, cooked very nicely, though you have to be prepared for the lemon jolt of its sauce.
Outweighing these satisfactions, however, have been the washouts. Quiches have a peculiar sweet crust and tasteless filling, sometimes reheated to stiffness. The chef's salad depends on American cheese and boiled ham to perk up its iceberg lettuce. The trout amandine tasted less than fresh, even under its excess of salt. And the chicken with vinegar was a pool of sour but otherwise insipid sauce with three very tiny and very dry pieces of meat. The $5 steak has possibilities, though it is a thin cut of ordinary beef; it is large for the price, well seasoned and cooked very rare if requested. But it would be improved if the grill were hotter so the surface could be charred rather than damp gray. The french fries are nothing a Frenchman would own up to. Some dishes come with fresh vegetables, perhaps sauteed zucchini or carrots with mushrooms and potatoes. And they all come with a salad, but the salad is just shards of iceberg lettuce with perhaps a radish or pale tomato wedge and in an insignificant creamy vinaigrette.
No appetizers are on the menu, and the waiters do not seem to understand the concept of two people sharing a quiche as an appetizer. They are likely to bring it as a main course and disappear before you can request a spare plate. The staff was progressively more French on each of my visits but remained intermittently attentive. Two out of three servers were neglectful and uncomprehending, and even the third sweet and helpful waitress did not dispel the sense of the service's being offhand.
One of the main decorative features of the cafe and a focus of the menu is the pastry display. Pastries are said to be made in the cafe's kitchen, which just goes to show that homemade does not always mean well made. On some occasions the pastries looked shopworn. Even when they looked their best, they tasted incompetent. A mocha torte was based on gummy batter that never rose, and the gritty frosting looked like buttercream but tasted like shortening with confectioners' sugar. The fruit tart was oafish. Creme brulee made a far better impression, being thick and yellow and very creamy, with a thin crust of darkly caramelized sugar. And cappuccino was frothy with properly steamed milk, dusted with a choice of cinnamon or chocolate. If plain coffee is your style, try the strong, nearly black French roast.
A wine list is available only at dinner, and it is not much of a list. The house wine, on the other hand, which the staff says is from Verona, is available also at lunch. One taste of it sends you back to the coffee list.
So what is to like at Country Living Cafe, besides the possibility of eating something with a French name for $5? The place itself is a tasteful simple room, the walls hung with handsome quilts and festooned with nostalgic stencils. Ceiling fans are set against a deep rose background. The bare wood tables and floor may increase the reverberation of noise, but the room looks uncluttered and pleasant. The setting works, the neighborhood is starving for culinary vitality, and the menu format is imaginative. The ingredients of success are there, but Country Living Cafe needs to combine them in a new recipe.