Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily. AE, DC, MC, V.
Reservations suggested on weekends. Prices: Main courses at lunch $5.50 to $9, at dinner $8.75 to $15. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $30 person.
If opening a new French restaurant is a major undertaking, so, today, is dining in one. An investment of $60 or more per couple for dinner means high expectations, as
does a major investment of capital by the restaurateur.
In its first six months, Pierre et Madeleine, a small, attractive and ambitious French restaurant in Vienna, has already lowered its expectations--as must its customers. My first visit--too early to consider reviewing it--was for a banquet. Not only was the meal excellent, the daily menu was reasonably priced, with impressive little touches such as pommes souffl,ees and seafood terrine. But basically, the menu was small.
Now it is smaller--eight main courses on the printed list and perhaps three daily specials. The pommes souffl,ees have disappeared, and the prices have increased $1 to $4 for the main courses. The quality seems to have dropped even more precipitously. Rarely in one meal have I encountered such contrasts of the delicious and the dismal as I have at Pierre et Madeleine. There is obviously talent in the kitchen, but sometimes it is asleep.
One hesitates to start with the appetizers. The p.at,e de foie de canard has been bitter and dry to the point of crumbling. The vegetable terrine was a slice of striped gelatin--pretty, with its orange (presumably carrot), green (perhaps spinach) and white (who knows?), but with no discernible flavor. It would have been rejected even from the jelled-salad chapter of a Junior League cookbook. Yet it was topped with a delicious little herbed tomato vinaigrette. That alone would have made a delightful appetizer. The same contrast showed in baked oysters with leeks and lumpfish caviar, their light cream sauce excellent but the oysters tasting as if they had been fished from a jar; they had no flavor of oyster. And the dish was cold.
Frustrating food, so good and so bad. A vegetable soup, a lovely golden pur,ee crisscrossed with slivers of poultry, tasted delicious, but was so thick it should have been served as a vegetable rather than as a soup. It would have been a great success, as its thickening was of vegetable, not of flour, so its texture would have served as an asset. Appetizers also include artichokes, snails, smoked salmon and foie gras that the waiter indicated is tinned, as well as an assiette campagnarde for two that looks spectacular but is composed of flabby and insipid head cheese, dull ham, indifferent sausage, worse p.at,e and some startlingly good prosciutto.
Your chances are better with the main dishes. In fact, one evening there was grilled sturgeon, thick and juicy and slightly smoky from the grill, an absolutely superb chunk of fish and a rare treat in Washington. Its sauce, a lightened Nantua, was agreeable if not remarkable. Rockfish, also a daily special, has been fresh-tasting, competently cooked, lightly sauced. So fish seems a good bet. The printed menu lists three fish dishes--swordfish with green peppercorns, trout with almonds and crab cr.epes. There are also three variations of steak. Filet flamed tableside in a thin beige sauce, with so many red peppercorns it feels as if you are eating buckshot, would have been just fine without all that crunching; the beef was rare and flavorful. Sirloin steak, however, has been tough and, though rare, bloodless and dry. Properly cooked, but not properly chosen from the meat purveyor, or perhaps frozen. There is also chateaubriand for two, as well as rack of lamb for two. The remaining main course on the standing menu is paillard of veal with lemon. Now that's a very fashionable dish, and if well prepared a delicious example of simple cooking. It takes excellent veal, not cut too thin, and a hot fire to sear it quickly before it dries out. At Pierre et Madeleine the veal had been pounded just short of its falling apart, and was so thin that the fire turned it to leather.
An adventurous chef is a good thing--but not when the diner must eat his failures as well as his successes. Liver with spinach, one evening's special, was unique; the thin slices of liver had been topped with spinach that seemed to be raw and just slightly wilted from the heat of the meat, and it was seasoned with sherry vinegar, a strong and teasing contrast to the rich liver. Exciting dish, had it not been swimming in thin brown sauce.
Pierre--the owner and table-hopping maitre d'h.otel--keeps calling this food nouvelle cuisine. Perhaps he hasn't heard that nouvelle cuisine is old hat and that French culinary invention is now being called something else. In any case, in this restaurant nouvelle cuisine means that the vegetable accompaniment is rounds of zucchini centered with wedges of carrot, the whole effect like a toddler's attempt with building blocks. I much prefer the old-fashioned potatoes au gratin that also accompany the meal; they are smooth and rich and crusty on top. Light sauces, whatever they are called, are an improvement on the French repertoire. But that does not mean that they should be allowed to slosh around on the plate; one must keep in mind that they are sauces, not soups.
Desserts are poignant at Pierre et Madeleine. The pastry chef bravely fills a cart with highly attractive pastries--a darkly caramelized tart tatin made with quartered apples, a creamy, egg-scented pear custard tart, cheesecakes, whatever. Every day there are several. But they suffer from the restaurant's slow start, and have been soggy when I have tried them. More evenhanded is the souffl,e glac,e made with orange liqueur, an elegantly creamy frozen dessert that loses much of its appeal by being served with an ice cream scoop.
In sum, there is good food here. But also some food that should never have left the kitchen of such an expensive restaurant. And who, at $12 to $15 for a main course, wants to pay for the kitchen's mistakes?
The room is pretty, set with pink and green tablecloths, a red rose on each table. In fact, it is quite a delightful surprise after its routine shopping-center facade and the entry hall of photos, all of Pierre hobnobbing with celebrities. The service is black-tie and somber but professional. Pierre seems to be having more fun than anybody else.
Hot and Cold Advertising--A flier from the Jefferson Bakery, a coffee shop in Falls Church featuring Indian sweets and snacks, claims it is "the first restaurant serving typical Indian subcontinental fast food." Not only that, but it is "the only authentic mild spicy Indian food in the metro area."
This One is Arkansas-fried-Farmer Brown's Southern Fried Rabbit, a franchise that was market-tested last year in the 51 Restaurant, will now have its own store at 809 12th St. NE. Owner Dock Price Jr., who went grew up hunting rabbits in Georgia, hopes to open more of the fast-food stores during the year, including one with a drive-up window. The restaurant will feature the same sweet potato fries and fried rabbit, available in boxes or sandwiches.