Open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner Tuesday through Sunday 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Closed Monday. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested.
Prices: At lunch, entrees from $6.25 to $8.95, for dinner $9.50 to $15.50. Brunch buffet $14.50.
Nowadays you can eat Vie de France croissants coast to coast and Bread Oven dinners in Potomac. Christian Domergue saw Vie de France through its expansion and then left to start The Bread Oven, which is now in the throes of rapid expansion. But while frozen croissants may be reproduced with no loss of quality, restaurants apparently cannot. The Bread Oven at Normandie Farm, while a vast improvement over Normandie Farm as it was before turning French, is not a credit to the standards of The Bread Oven.
Of course, dining at Normandie Farm starts with a lot of points in its favor. The grounds are manicured and abundantly flowered. The inside is a replica of a French country inn, its high ceiling crossed with rough dark beams and the white walls displaying antique French pottery. The rooms are charming even though enormous, and range from a gigantic lounge to a semiporch. The pity is that, at least in the main dining room, the tables are just row upon row, so that the seating has all the intimacy of a hotel dining room.
The food is considerably better than the service, but even that's faint praise. To appreciate the service sometimes requires a sense of comedy.
At dinner one night we waited interminably to order. Then the waiter showed up, apologizing for the delay and explaining that he'd forgotten all about us. Next he had to tell us that the kitchen was out of several things that we had ordered, even the spinach salad -- something you hardly expect a kitchen to run out of. He advised us against seafood brochette, saying that fish was being substituted for scallops that night. And instead of bringing us clam chowder, he brought shrimp bisque because the chowder, too, was gone. The woman busing the table, however, was competent enough to smooth the rest of the meal.
The menu is French, as it is for the other Bread Ovens. But unlike the others, it has discarded the two-week cycle of menus that the downtown Bread Oven started so successfully. Instead, it is the usual bordering-on-expensive French menu, and there is a special six-course, nouvelle-cuisine-tasting menu at $28.50. There is some good cooking coming from the kitchen, but less reliable than one would hope for a $25 to $35 dinner.
One can handle unreliability if it follows a pattern. The Bread Oven's kitchen, however, is unpredictable: seafood might be beautifully done, as in a stuffed lobster that was tender and sweet despite its being a spiny lobster rather than a Maine lobster. Or it might be dreadful, as in dry and chewy swordfish all the worse for our having specified to the waiter that we wanted it very lightly cooked. And at brunch buffet, when you most expect overcooked and dried-out fish, the bluefish might be soft and supple.
The menu changes daily and includes some imaginative choices, perhaps a slice of salmon rolled around a pale fish mousse -- a little fishy in taste but, in all, an appealing appetizer. Scallops as an appetizer have been cooked in a buttery and tart sorrel sauce, again not outstanding but a pleasant and generous dish. But then lobster bisque was atrociously sharp, and even gazpacho was but a standard vinegary puree with no textural interest. Side dishes -- salads and that crusty and chewy Bread Oven bread -- are reminders that the chain's quality is continued at this location.
We've had some good luck with meaty main dishes. Kidneys were tender, cooked just to a point and of excellent quality and freshness. Their rich brown sauce suited well. And rack of lamb was particularly good, well trimmed and cooked rare, though served with everyday mushrooms rather than the cepes that the menu promised. A good thick, pale veal chop, too, was disappointing only for its tinny-tasting artichoke hearts, not for its quality.
Dessert does a real turnabout for those who know the original Bread Ovens. Pastries here are sloppy and gummy, but this is one of the few restaurants in the area to serve good summer fruits: a lightly sweetened poached peach with ice cream, a fine fruit salad. And anything with chocolate sauce, profiteroles or ice cream is sensational for its bittersweet topping.
The Bread Oven is drawing friends with its Sunday buffet brunch, $14.50 for adults, including frequent pourings of slightly sweet but not bad champagne. The buffet table is nicely appointed, and the array of food is not gargantuan but certainly ample. There are enough assets to make it worth-while: small but adequate oysters on the half-shell, a pretty seafood and spinach pate, delicious delicate lacy pancakes, creamy scrambled eggs, succulent bluefish in a light butter sauce and fresh and refreshing fruits to team with cheeses if you like.
Then there are the inexplicable disasters: bacon that is pale, soggy and barely cooked, steamy damp fennel-spiced sausages, a cold soup that could be cream of anything, tiny and watery yet tough spiced shrimp. Sliced-to-order roast sirloin was just middling, and pastries were gloppy except for The Bread Oven's wonderful croissants. And one cup of coffee was watery, the next too bitter for a second sip.
Service was more spirited than competent; you could expect the waiter to remove your used plates from the table as you returned to the buffet, but not your dirty silver or your soup bowl. So brunch is halfway there, but much enhanced by the fun of a magician or accordionist entertaining you at your table.
Potomac has needed The Bread Oven to fill that sadly vacant inn. And now The Bread Oven needs to fill its ranks with a higher degree of competence for that time when the first blush of romance wears thin.