Open 11:30 a.m. to midnight daily; Sunday through Thursday light fare until 2 a.m.; Friday and Saturday light fare until 4 a.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Prices: Appetizers average $3, light dishes such as omelets and salads $4.25 to $4.50, main dishes $6 to $9, desserts $2 to $2.50. A light supper can cost under $5 plus wine, tax and tipa full dinner $15 to $20 plus wine, tax and tip.
A restaurant can so suit its time and place as to succeed in spite of itself. And so, Place Vendome, a glittery new brasserie on the site of the old Rive Gauche -- designer jeans crossroads of our nation's capital -- reeks success rather than garlic.
"I thought this was going to be more 'uptown,'" complained one society-watcher. "It's 'midtown,'" answered a companion. Even so, if you hit Place Vendome at the height of the right evening, the costuming is so slick that you wonder whether those diners were parachuted in; you certainly never saw the likes on the streets of Georgetown. The waiters, too, are very presentable young men, though perhaps more interested in their own presentation than that of the food. One evening the restaurant was thickly populated with waiters, but service was neglectful.
The diner becomes more audience than participant, but the show is not bad. Rive Gauche's high ceiling remains, and the oak booths and tables are set to allow space and privacy rarely encountered at such modest prices. Brasserie brass outlines and furnishings, and green glass tulip lamps light the room. Mirrors reflect. Wood gleams. And only the dinky plasticized woven placemats remind you that Paris is still distant.
The restaurant is noisy, but what's a brasserie without noise?
The overture sets you up for a grand time. The menu is full of tempting possibilities: Four pates -- rabbit, duck liver, seafood and vegetable -- can be ordered alone ($3) or with a small salad -- spinach, artichokes, leek or cucumber -- which will bring the price to $4.25. The standint menu includes egg dishes, salads, a few seafoods (rockfish with vegetables and herbs en papillote, scallops with endives, salmon with vermouth) and four meats (chicken with sherry vinegar and tarragon, veal with watercress cream, duck breast with turnips in cider, marinated lamb) plus a steak for two served with salad, french fries and dessert. There is also a vegetarian plate. Better yet, these main dishes average $8.50, the two-course steak dinner $7 a person. Then there are the specials, the likes of pork with mint sause, kidneys with mustard, poached trout, softshell crab, red snapper with sorrel. Again the average is $8.50, $6.50 for lunch. And the desserts, and array of sophisticated-looking pastries and sophisticated-sounding mousses and frozen creams rare by Washington standards, average $2.50, well below what desserts half as glamorous can cost elsewhere. Ah, yes, a menu to enjoy, particularly with Taittinger champagne by the glass for $2.75.
The food is . . . not bad. Sometimes. Of course, sometimes it is every bit as glorious as it sounds. Smoked trout, though unadorned by sauce, is a moist and smoky little fish, very nice food for summer. Salads of artichokes and leeks are both fresh and aromatic, their vinaigrette suitably delicate. And if your timing is right, the pastries -- a chocolate cup filled with praline mousse and a bit of liqueur-drenched cake, a green chartreuse frozen souffle -- are extraordinary. But if your timing is wrong, they are soggy from sitting around, melting from the heat, pasty, grainy, cracked and in every way prone to the flaws of careless storage.
The average dishes, however attactive, are average. Quiche would have stood above the crowd, had its crust not been broken off before it was served. Seafood and vegetable pates were tasteless. Marinated lamb was nicely cooked, crusty, and accompanied by overlapping slices of tomato, eggplant and zucchini. But the vegetables were not cooked through. The sauce, like most at Place Vendome, was fashionable light and thin, but lacked; depth and character. Chicken with mushrooms and garlic was most notable for its mushrooms and garlic; the bird tasted reheated and wan. Despite exceptions such as a tough and dry lamb burger identified as "lamb stuffed with fresh herbs," the meats and seafoods are generally properly cooked -- the meat rare when requested, the seafoods still moist. But little tastes more than correct. Lobster in nantua -- eh. Scallops with endive -- yawn. Steak with french fries -- bland, with a hint of factory bouillon. The duck has been among the best dishes I have tried, but it tasted more like goose than duck, coarse-textured and gamey. It was a pleasant flavor, and the turnips confits were deliciously caramelized, so I'm not complaining, must mystified.
So, Place Vendome is halfway there. The asparagus can be perfect, the rolls are hot and crusty when they aren't stale. The choice and variety delight even when the product does not. And the house wines are a step ahead of most. For such moderate prices, Place Vendome suits.
Too much promise is unfulfilled, however. Good ingredients are given indifferent finishing touches. Potentially outstanding desserts are handled with disrespect. It is one thing to get what you pay for, but another to have something better waved in your face at the same time.