Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. No credit cards. No reservations. Prices: Main courses at lunch about $3 to $6, at dinner about $7 to $8. Full dinner with tax and tip about $15 per person.
Strangely, there's something about most French-style cafes that calls to mind the fast food chains. The similarity lies in the nearly total predictability of the menus. Every school child knows what to expect in the one case: hamburgers, fried chicken and french fries. But the other is just as rigid in its own, classier way. The standard cafe litany unfailingly repeats quiche, cream soups, pate, salade nicoise, artichoke vinaigrette, chocolate mousse . . . A few variants here and there, perhaps, but no surprises.
However interchangeable the cafe menus may be, though, the cafe quality certainly varies. Which brings us to Cafe Roval, as it approaches the end of its first year in the Potomac Promenade shopping center. Standards are high here, some of the offerings are outstanding and, wondrously, the prices seem to average about 20 percent below the competition's.
The cafe seats no more than about 40 people indoors. With a small kitchen and limited staff, the proceedings on a busy Saturday night can take on a slightly harried quality. Although we didn't notice that the service or food suffered seriously for all the weekend rushing around, a place this small is generally extra-sensitive to fluctuations in the number of customers, and can come close to being overwhelmed by a sudden rush. Try visiting on a weekday if you can, when the environment is more tranquil.
The decor holds as few surprises as the menu, but that's not necessarily a drawback. This is a modest but pretty place, with the standard creamy stucco walls, copper pots, hanging plants, tile floor, and bare, blond wood tables set with fresh daisies. With all those hard surfaces for bouncing sound waves, there's lots of noise on a busy night, another reason for a weekday visit.
There's no liquor license yet, so you'll have to settle for Perrier water or soft drinks at aperitif time.
The good news begins with the bread, impeccably fresh loaves of what look like La Parisienne baguettes, warmed carefully to avoid toasting. Unlike some other cafes, Roval doesn't charge for it.
Soups are uniformly good -- fresh creme, lively vegetables and a nicely restrained hand on the spices and herbs. The robust potage parisienne deserves special mention for making simplicity a virtue -- potatoes, leeks, milk, cream and butter, with little more than salt and pepper. Fresh romaine, spinach and a good oil-lemon juice-mustard dressing set the stage for pleasing salads, though they'd be even better if the dressing were tossed with the greens rather than just poured over the top. Incidentally, salade printaniere, with a variety of vegetables in addition to the greens, is easily big enough for two to share; at $3.25 it's a better buy than two plain house salads at $1.50 each.
If the present trend continues, in another decade the ubiquitous quiche may take the place of pizza as America's national snack food. All the more reason to educate your palate before it's too late with the first-rate quiches at Cafe Roval. You can store away memories of subtle, airy, egg-cheese custard, with well-drained, well-cooked and blessedly un-nutmegged spinach, and, above all, marvelous, delicately crisp puff pastry.
Puff pastry, by the way, is what Cafe Roval does best. You can sample it in some of the daily specials, like an excellent seafood en croute, with a creamy fennel-rosemary sauce, or fresh salmon en croute with spinach. What makes these dishes outstanding is perfect timing; they arrive at the table piping hot, the pastry still not penetrated by the sauce so that the textural contrast -- crispy and creamy -- remains a delight. (Again, best go on a weekday. We encountered a somewhat soggy salmon en croute on a Saturday night, when perfect timing was apparently out for the evening.)
The Roval occasionally offers duck a l'orange on its specials list, and shows what this dish ought to taste like. Its fat is all but completely rendered, its skin wonderfully thin and crisp, its flesh is sweet and moist, and the cloying quality of its orange sauce is tempered just a touch with apricot.
Other specials worth trying? Veal marengo in a casserole with fresh, fruity tomatoes and mushrooms, or fettucine maison, homemade pasta in a cream sauce with oregano and tiny bits of tomato, or -- best of all -- fresh swordfish in a restrained white wine and grape sauce that lets the fish speak for itself.
Save room for desserts. The tarts are made with more of that superb puff pastry below, and fresh -- not canned, not frozen, but fresh -- fruits above. The walnut cake is not to be missed, with its deep, nutty flavor, real whipped cream, and general freedom from icky over-sweetness. You can pass up the chocolate mousse without regret, though.