Open for breakfast Monday through Friday 7 to 10 a.m., for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner Monday through Friday 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Free parking in building after 5 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations. Prices: Breakfast from $1.25 to $2.50; appetizers at lunch and dinner from $1.75 to $4.95; main courses at lunch from $4.75 to $9.95; main courses at dinner from $5.25 to $9.95. Special complete dinner, including soup, main course, salad, pastry and coffee, is $12.50.
I've seen it happen often enough in restaurants at dinner--more and more chairs being pulled up at a table as one friend spots another, until the meal turns into a party. I hadn't seen it at breakfast, though, until one morning at La Colline. "Good morning, breakfast clubbies," one man greeted the group as he took a chair that had just been vacated, continuing the Tuesday morning Capitol Hill breakfast party.
The attraction is an enormous dining room divided into clubby little seating areas, the flowery upholstered booths allowing privacy, the window walls affording sun, the handsome pale wood and shiny brass completing a setting that is modern but not hard-edged. It's a nice place to sit for breakfast, ditto lunch and dinner, though for the former I'm looking forward to the outdoor tables and at dinner one might be waylaid by the wine bar, bathed in the reflected history of a ceiling of empty wine bottles.
La Colline is a brasserie, its prices moderate and its choices meant to satisfy all kinds of appetites. It is not sensational food, but some of the kitchen's attempts are out of the ordinary. The croissants and pain au chocolat are made in-house; in fact, the spacious bakery turns out a wide choice of interesting--if not uniformly successful--pastries to fill the cart at lunch and dinner. Breakfast can also include fresh orange juice, bagels with high-quality smoked salmon, omelets, grits or even a comforting bowl of cream of wheat. Pancakes or French toast are only $1.75; a continental breakfast is about $2, American-style eggs and bacon $2.50. The croissants were pretty good--light, well browned, flaky and buttery--but the omelets were more firm than optimal, and my hash brown potatoes were both burned and mushy. It is, in sum, just breakfast, not a gastronomic wonder.
At lunch and dinner, La Colline serves many purposes. The lunch menu encompasses sandwiches, salads and omelets (in the $5 range) and a repeat of the dinner menu (about $6 to $10) plus daily specials (about $5 to $7). You might find a hearty Irish stew or corned beef and cabbage or an elegant dish such as sole with walnuts or salmon with sorrel. Dinner entrees are the same prices as lunch, about $6 to $10, plus a complete dinner at $12.50--an evening-meal bargain by Washington standards.
This is Washington's second major brasserie in the last couple of years, and the style of its food is indeed reminiscent of the other, Place Vendome. The food sounds inventive-- duck breast with cassis, rabbit with chablis or burgundy, terrine of scallops and sorrel. It looks pretty. It tastes, most often, pretty good but certainly not wonderful. Among appetizers, crab in a saffron mayonnaise and clams provencale have been routine, smoked salmon has been of excellent quality and attractively presented and an Alsatian onion tart was pleasantly fragrant and perfectly good--but nothing exceptional among them. A notch down, though, were scallop terrine with pasty texture and no discernible scallop flavor, fish soup that tasted like overly thinned fish-base mix and watercress soup that was grassy cold milk in a cup.
Fortunately, La Colline is one of those rare restaurants that does better by its main courses than appetizers. The sleeper on the menu--and an impressive value at $8.25--is a lamb chop cut from the saddle (therefore double-size), nicely broiled and accompanied by a creditable sauce paloise, which is bearnaise made with mint rather than tarragon. It comes with three vegetables, perhaps broccoli perfectly seasoned, crispy pan-browned potatoes and tomato wedges heated in butter--among the most delicious cooked tomatoes I have been served. Another day, it was ideally cooked green beans tossed with parsley and bright, fresh cooked carrots. It's nice to know that Capitol Hill is being effectively lobbied to appreciate fresh vegetables.
Fish is likely to be fresh, and in my experience has been carefully cooked at La Colline. And such choices as rockfish with bordelaise--including slices of marrow--or lotte in a traminer wine sauce make fish a tempting choice. Shrimp are also cooked perfectly. But the sauces falter; pernod overwhelmed the shrimp, the bordelaise underwhelmed the rockfish. The same can be said of the duck: its sauce was unmemorable. In addition, the fanned-out slices of duck breast were cooked through, and these days one expects sliced duck breast to be served more rare.
Only one main course I have tasted, however, was a disaster. Rabbit was dried out and swamped by a strong, unpleasant alcoholic sauce. More typical was the veal, almost excellent, a thick slice with considerable character and beautifully cooked, topped with a duxelles and cream sauce that enhanced the veal. But spreading the duxelles on top of the veal made it a distinctly unattractive dish. Easily rectified.
As for desserts, the buttercream tortes show the chef to best advantage, and a lemon meringue cake has been tart and moist. Chocolate mousse in a chocolate cup was similarly worth saving space for. But the tarts tend to grow tough or soggy, and an occasional multiflavor pastry concoction has added up to less than its parts.
I have saved the best for last. The greatest asset to La Colline is its wine orientation. Manager Jim Hutton is a well-respected wine specialist, and he lovingly constructs the ever- changing wine list and selection of wines by the glass (usually about a half-dozen, mostly under $3). The bar is likely to emerge as a wine salon, with snacks available from the menu and Hutton turning a new acquisition into an impromptu wine tasting. He plans a series of festivals; Alsatian was most recent, combining beers, wines and food to suit.
La Colline is an offspring of Le Bagatelle and plans to someday open a small, elegant restaurant on the premises. In the meantime, it is hardly a gastronomic mecca, but rather a fresh, unpretentious and agreeable gathering place with food that, though it doesn't dazzle, is likely to please.