Open for brunch Saturday and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner Sunday through Thursday 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday, Saturday 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Reservations suggested. No credit cards. Prices: at brunch main dishes $5 to $6; at lunch main dishes $3.95 to $9.95; at dinner appetizers $3 to $4, main dishes about $6 to $11, desserts $1.75 to $3.50. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $20 to $25 a person.
Outside it's Adams Morgan, inside it's Manhattan's upper East Side, this pretty and sunny restaurant on the corner of a new one-block commercial redevelopment. The whole block is tempting, with a little fancy grocery and a cookware store, and a bakery said to be on its way.
The restaurant is glass-walled and largely undecorated so that the small Victorian lamps and the floor of tiny tiles play it up as clean-lined but not stark. Classical music weaves beneath the pleasant hubbub. On gray cloths are candles and a couple of small flowers, with napkins fanned out from the wine glasses. Pulled up to the tables are chairs from some Victorian home. This is a restaurant for a casual and lively dinner more than for all-evening lingering, and one of the rare restaurants well suited to couples, for its best seats are at the double tables by the windows.
The small wine list is very reasonably priced, with no still wine over $15, and the likes of Ste. Michelle semillon, Firestone reisling, Geyser Peak chardonnay for about $10. White wine is kept chilled in a clay cooler that looks appealing but clumsily overwhelms the table.
In fact, Lauriol is full of clever ideas that don't quite come off. Cream of butternut squash soup is prettily pale orange and topped with a crunch of chopped hazelnuts, but it tastes vague and sweet and starchy. Black bean soup is sweeter, even before its accompanying glass of sweet sherry is poured in, and it has been served lukewarm. One day's vegetable p.at,e looked amateurish, crumbly ribbons of vegetable pur,ee dolloped with a thickish tomato vinaigrette, and its carrot ribbon was unexpectedly sweet. Among appetizers I have tried, only the mousse of duck with port warranted no major objections; it was merely indifferent--too much salt, too little duck flavor, too gelatinous.
Among the main dishes there are more promising choices, but I warn you to skirt elaborate dishes and ask for your sauces on the side where possible. Broiled lamb chops are just fine, but their red currant and orange sauce tastes like something to spread on an English muffin. The watercress sauce for the grilled salmon is vaguely sweet and otherwise tasteless, and red pepper sauce for swordfish has been acrid; the fish itself, however, can be nicely cooked so that its juiciness remains. The same is true of filet of beef, but if you closed your eyes you could tell it was meat but might not guess beef. The beef, lamb chops and fish have been marinated, the menu says, though this is not readily apparent. Charbroiled chicken breast, however, does taste of its tamarind-ginger-garlic marinade and is one of the better dishes, though the grill charred it in places and overcooked it.
My most severe warnings, however, are reserved for Lauriol's cream sauces. Medallions of pork with cream, apricot and brandy sauce were stewy, long-cooked pork in the kind of gluey sauce that made us glad to graduate from lunching in school cafeterias. And shrimp in cream and pernod sauce did all right by the big, plump shrimp, but the sauce glued together its bed of fettuccine so that we could pick up all the noodles in one forkful. Fettuccine with gorgonzola sauce escaped gumminess and would have been lovely with its julienned vegetables and gorgonzola cream, except that it was permeated with a sharp and acrid taste I associate with overaged cheese rind.
There was a star, but I found it on the menu only once. Lauriol should make its chili a regular. Not only was it, at $4.95, the cheapest main dish, it was a delicious bowlful of brisket in chunks and shreds against a background of plenty- hot chili pepper, cumin, just a little green pepper and a few beans. The chili was thick from meat not from thickener, relied for its color and flavor on meat and seasonings rather than tomatoes, was piquant and intense but not searing and came topped with chunks of cheddar cheese and scallions.
The accompaniments at Lauriol, too, are endearing ideas but just short in execution. Green beans should be crisp, but these were not much beyond raw; they were, however, commendably fresh and delightfully seasoned with lemon butter and parsley, as is the rice (which also tends to overdo the crunchiness). Little dilled rolls are also an attractive idea, but were of spongy character.
The kitchen does better with desserts. A trifle has been soft and eggy, well flavored with sherry and jam and topped with real whipped cream; the chocolate mousse is dark and dense; cr,eme brul,ee is just as thick and just as rich. Only a fruit tart fell flat, and that was because the too-thick crust was raw on the bottom, tough around the sides, and the filling had little discernible taste.
Lauriol is keeping up with trends right down to the coffee-- offering brewed Colombian decaffeinated--and has a fruit and cheese board as an option to dessert. Its brunch menu also captures such trends as grilled smoked fish (with oatcakes), lime and fennel in the vinaigrette saucing shrimp and scallops, and bran or fruit muffins or vari-flavored croissants to accompany main courses.
The greatest asset of the restaurant is its servers, an enthusiastic group who seem familiar with the food and the wine. Thus in terms of its environment, Lauriol is rather compelling. This is a restaurant with potential; it does, however, need a keener taste in the kitchen to assure that those imaginative dishes taste as good as they sound.