Open Monday through Saturday for breakfast 7 to 11 a.m., lunch noon to 2:30 p.m., dinner 6 to 1 a.m.; Sunday for breakfast 7 to 11 a.m., brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner 6 to 11 p.m. AE, CB D, MC, V. Reservations. Valet parking. Prices: Most main courses at lunch $8.50, but some as high as $32; most main course at dinner $12.50, but some as high as $24. After-theater supper (11 p.m. to 1 a.m.) $15. Sunday champagne brunch $15.
Breakfast at the Rive Gauche? Les cornflakes, s'il vous plait. How about Rive Gauche room service? Les sandwiches for deux. Rive Gauche as a bargain? Mon dieu!
The Rive Gauche, once the haughtiest restaurant in Washington, has moved to the Georgetown Inn, where chef Michel Laudier presides over breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, late supper and room service. He has moved the claret-tufted leather banquettes, the palace-scale chandeliers and the umimpressive impressionist paintings to this new home. He has brought his gold-scripted leatherbound menus and his waiters in black tie and French accent. He has turned the Rive Gauche into a Jacques des touts metiers.
It is Washington's gain and loss.
The dining room is a welcome sight to anyone who has loved the old Rive Gauche's traditional sumptuousness. Those banquettes look fresh and grand, perhaps renewed, against the pink tableclothes, the daytime sunlight and evening crystal glitter. First look: warm recognition. Second look: alors! the low ceiling has thrown everything out of proporation, as if the room was squashed by some giant hand. And the enormous chandelier low over one large table looks like a sword of Damocles.
Laudier's dining room staff, as eager as they may be, display too much hesitancy. And although they had spotted me as a restaurant critic, they forgot to replace forks, bring napkins and deliver cream with the coffee. Some of the old-timers are experts, but other waiters need seasoning.
With long hours, hotel as well as restaurant commitments and variety of menus, the kitchen staff is doing too much; or, at least, it has not yet learned how to cope with all it is doing. So service can be gnawingly slow.
Obviously, Laudier understands the problem, realizes the learning to handle all these tasks will take time. Unlike proprietors of most new restaurants, though, he is offering his public compensations for the rough edges of his first year. Laudier is keeping some of his prices low, so that while the diner inevitably pays for a restaurant's mistakes, one is paying less than he might. At least a dozen main dishes at dinner are $12.50, a rare low price for the likes of Dover sole and timbale of scampi of such quality. You can spend considerably more at the Rive Gauche, but you need not. The four-course post-theater dinner or the champagne brunch at $15 are excellent values.
Having tried breakfast, brunch, dinner and room service, I'll take brunch. (In all honesty, I'd take room service, but the price is too high.) Most buffet brunches are grand arrays of mediocre food, from which the wise pick the dishes -- like smoked fish, salads and fruit -- which have the least done to them. Rive Gauche's buffet is ample but not gargantuan, and here the cooking is the star. Eggs benedict have runny yolks and the softest float of tart and buttery hollandaise. I have had no better hollandaise in town, and the tray of eggs is frequently replaced to keep them from growing soggy. Not so the fish; its overcooked smell competes with the smell of chafing dish fuel in the dining room. And the sweet rolls are heated nearly to a cinder. But the scrambled eggs are moist and buttery, the beef bourguignon cooked with classic finesse, the blanquette de veau delicate, though a bit runny for a buffet plate. The buffet has fresh vegetables -- zuchini with a crust of cheese, perhaps -- and salads of simple excellence -- potatoes in olive oil, tomatoes marinated with onions and cheese, fresh fruit in a carved watermelon half. The smoked salmon is grandly garnished with tomato roses and silver bowls of condiments. Brunch ends with pastries that are a wide choice of the rich, dense, buttery, crisp, airy, creamy or tart -- whatever your whim. And the coffee is fine. Better organization is needed -- warm plates are nice for entrees, but not for salads.
Dinner, too, has its share of excellence, but the beginnings and endings outshine the middle. One evening specials began with a sole mousse wrapped in lettuce, its texture slick and airy, its sauce no less delicate. A rabbit terrine was full-flavored and gamy, its seasonings restrained enough to let you taste rabbit; hazelnuts added a pleasant crunch. A chicken fricassee also had a welcome crunch, of asparagus added at the last minute, its carrots and turnips should have been withheld for shorter cooking, too, but in all the dish was aromatic and delicious. Lobster with white butter sauce, perhaps the only lobster dish that is an improvement on plain boiled lobster, is well executed here, the lobster having taken on a slight smokiness from its flaming. Dover sole is regularly on the menu, and it is an impressive sight, the whole fish roasted with a light crumb topping, dressed with a chive cream. Veal chop, also a regular, is thick and pale, moistened with cream and decorated with woodsy morels. Rive Gauiche lavishes care on its cream sauces, balancing lightness and richness, though they may show more correctness than individuality. Their lack of flair is most apparent in salmon with watercress, the typical nouvelle cuisine presentation of paperthin slices of salmon in a creamy green pool. The fish, being so thin, firmed slightly beyond succulence by the time it reached the table, and the sauce was but a quiet little cream.
On the more seriously negative side, though, is the duck in orange sauce, which our captain particularly recommended. It was a beautiful arrangement of breast slices overlapped in a curve, with wild rice and precisely arranged orange sections. The sauce was as good as he had intimated, slightly sweet and light. But the duck was chewy, with a thick layer of fat under its soggy skin. And then the small but telling flaws: boiled potato as garnish on two plates, one still partly raw, the other waterlogged.
Rive Gauche's wine list is pretty good -- as most French restaurant lists are these days -- and extends from California to Burgundy. Its prices, also typically, are pretty high, from an extremely pleasant vouray at $14 to Dom Perignon at $125.
Desserts show how far Wasington's French restaurants have come in the past few years. Besides a cart full of buttercream cakes and tarts, generally quite good, there are paper-thin apple tarts baked to order, poached pears on a bed of wine sherbet, ovals of seasonal sherbets garnished with fruits on a pool of custard and -- the most spectacular -- ginger ice cream and pear in a cookie shell. Some day the chocolate mousse -- pale, glossy ovals on rippled paper-thin waves of chocolate -- could be a dessert to put Rive Gauche on the map; but I found that the gorgeous presentation was not realized in the taste, bland and starchy.
A couple of changes in the Rive Gauche are particular disappointments; the formerly wonderful pea soup now tastes more of bacon than of peas, and otherwise is bland. And the roses are gone, replaced by silly little dish gardens in Chinese rice bowls. But so much new is going on, so many new dishes are being attempted, and so many new formats are being introduced, that the Rive Gauche must still be considered under construction, more for the rubberneckers who want to be the first to see what's going on than for picky eaters.