Open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., for brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Closed Monday. Reservations. No credit cards. Prices: Main courses at brunch and lunch about $5 to $7, at dinner about $9 to $11.25. Full dinner with tax, tip, no wine about $20 to $25 a person.
A cooking school restaurant has a lot to live up to, so it
was in bewilderment last March that we left La Cham pagne, adjacent to Bethesda's L'Academie de Cuisine,
with our brunch uneaten, from the watery, slippery
omelet to canary-yellow, flaccid-bottomed eggs benedict. Within a week we happened to hear that a new chef was coming, so we held off on return visits.
A subsequent brunch restored our appetite for the place; a lot has been learned by this cooking school restaurant. Where once the omelets were near-raw, unseasoned and filled with mush, now they are light and soft and stuffed with savories like saut,eed julienned veal and shallots and topped with freshly snipped scallions. And the eggs benedict are not only very good nowadays, they are varied by substituting slices of moist and rosy roast lamb for the ham, then set on crisped English muffin and sauced with an outstanding, delicately tart hollandaise. There are faults to be found--the eggs were poached too long, so the yolks didn't run; the fruit muffins that accompanied brunch were just fair and not as fitting as a croissant or brioche would be in a French caf,e; and the coffee was very good, but very cold. The menu is simple--a few pat,es, a few omelets, two or three other egg dishes, a fruit plate, a soup, quiche and pastries. And all are ,a la carte, with the main courses ranging from $3.50 to about $7 for French steak and eggs. And even if you add freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee and even dessert to your main course, it would be hard to spend more than $25 a couple--and half that could do.
The bill at dinner, too, is not high--$15 to $20 a person. But these prices are misleading because La Champagne--despite its name--has no wine or liquor license. Remove wine or cocktails from any restaurant bill and it's substantially less. And, while some of the prices are in line, several are too high for the style of service and surroundings. Three dollars for a circle of halved strawberries and kiwi quarters at brunch, $2.45 for cold soup at dinner, $10.50 for a thin steak, $10.25 for calf's liver or $10 for poached haddock might be expected at a restaurant with tablecloths, linen napkins and carpeting (a three-course dinner can be had at the old Rive Gauche--now Les Ambassadeurs--for the price of an entree here); but La Champagne, while charming, is far from luxurious.
A few tables sit under plaid umbrellas outdoors against a backdrop of flower boxes to form a magnetic sidewalk cluster. Inside, the focal point is a display case of p.at,es and pastries, kept tidy and compelling. Unadorned plastic laminated tables are each set with a vase of flowers, and though the decorations are not lavish, they have a country charm. Against the walls are antique sideboards; on the windows are caf,e curtains in French provincial patterns, on the walls color photographs of flower-decked lanes. The floor is tile and the walls are trimmed in a countryside blue. The staff are largely young and casual. La Champagne has the air of la campagne.
By and large the food we encountered at dinner was good. The onion soup was rich with the sweet taste of long-browned onions, though its cheese topping was not browned. A tomato soup with basil was also lively and delicious, but a cold watercress soup tasted like watered-down cream. The p.at,es were firm and densely meaty, with a distinctively French flavor. Only the duck mousse was too salty. Main dishes were pleasing, but not outstanding, a fresh and reasonably moist haddock poached a tad too long, though the pale calf's liver and the thin steak were as rare as requested. The menu is short-- at most, a half-dozen plats du jour--but changes daily; it could use an option such as a tossed salad. One of the kitchen's nice touches is a mustard hollandaise, perhaps on filet mignon or fish, and its other sauces are agreeable if not exciting.
In other words, it is a satisfying little restaurant with few pretensions and quite decent cooking. Even better than the main dishes are some of the side dishes and garnishings-- slivers of tomato and juliennes of carrot are definitely a more refreshing addition to the plates than the clumps of parsley. A side dish of deeply browned braised cabbage was wonderful. And a salad of new potatoes with cr,eme fraiche matched it.
Stay around for dessert; here is one of the few pastry displays that tastes as good as it looks. There might be an orange cheesecake that is smooth and creamy and sparked by orange in the batter as well as glazed orange slices on top. The buttercream tortes are indeed buttery, and the Bavarians might be a beautiful tricolor of raspberrry, blueberry and mango or more everyday lemon, but in any case they are lovely on the tongue. There are large and small fruit tarts of quality, nutty linzer tortes and creamy chocolate or hazelnut rolls.
On a sunny day, with a midnight-dark espresso and a fragrant, buttery hazelnut torte, you could dream at this pretty little indoor-outdoor cafe that Wilson Lane had been granted French citizenship.