Open for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., for dinner Monday through Saturday 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Reservations suggested. AE, DC, MC, V. Prices: Most dinner appetizers around $5, entrees $12 to 16. Complete dinner including modest wine, tax and tip around $28 to $45 per person.
In reviewing French restaurants in the suburbs, we often find ourselves making excuses. It's a good place, goes the gist of the message, considering. Considering it's a remodeled pizza parlor. Or considering it's in an area so rural there isn't even a McDonald's. Or considering it's upstairs from an auto body shop. We praise the courage it took to open an ambitious restaurant in such a location, and suggest that readers be tolerant of the flaws. Granted, we imply, they wouldn't happen downtown, but out here in the hinterlands, pretend you don't notice.
Chalet de la Paix, under new management this year, requires no such excuses, no special tolerance or dispensation. It would hold its own on K Street, and, in fact, would probably fit in quite nicely in a Paris suburb.
It's a pretty place, small and intimate, with those little touches -- immaculate linens, beautiful china, fresh lilies on each table -- that can add up to elegance even in an otherwise modest restaurant. The service is professional in the European style, yet without the aloofness that sometimes acts as a cold towel in the downtown biggies. This is, after all, a place for local people, where the owner and the waiters will probably recognize you on your second visit. ("Probably" because we've seen much of the warmth evaporate on a busy weekend night, when the staff can be harried and their performance nder par.)
The menu lists the usual appetizers (p.at,e, escargots, smoked salmon, etc.), a dozen or so regular entrees and five or six daily specials. (On Sundays the menu is abbreviated, so that may not be the best time to visit.) Portions are generous -- those beautiful china plates are filled, rather than merely decorated with food -- and the dishes are presented with unusual attention to their visual appeal. Prices? Downtown-high, make no mistake about it. On the other hand, unlike some restaurants in this price range, the entrees include a couple of vegetables, so you're getting a balanced meal on your plate, not just a piece of meat.
For appetizers, there's an occasionally available quail p.at,e that's a gem, interlayered with sweet orange peel and served with a tart currant sauce for a dynamite intermingling of flavors. More subtle dynamite in another special, the salmon mousse with turbot, the delicate mousse surrounded by firm, pearly turbot and served with a piquant sauce verte. Just right. Less spectacular but solidly good are the clams casino and the gentlest of smoked salmon.
The onion soup in too many restaurants is a travesty -- oversalted, overcheesed, brassy mush. Erase such memories from your mind here and experience the real thing. Onions with life and honest flavor still left in them, naturally sweet from pan- browning, a gentle broth uncorrupted by sugar or sherry, and a good but not overapplied gruy,ere cap. Look for the gazpacho, too, when it's available, with lots of garlic and herbs for depth of flavor, and what feels to the tongue like grated carrot for body. And the lobster bisque, complex and buttery. The cream of broccoli soup, on the other hand, was inexplicably flat and bland, needing even salt.
Salads are impeccable, prettily served, with the freshest of greens and a good, mustard-sharpened vinaigrette. The caesar salad is the customary tableside production number, usually done properly but on one occasion grossly oversloshed with worcestershire sauce.
The beurre blanc sauce here is outstanding, light, buttery, not too thick and with just the right touch of tartness. Depending on what's available, you can have it with trout or other fish, carefully cooked and usually topped with beautiful chunks of snowy crab meat. Sometimes the beurre blanc sauce is also offered with shrimp, but these were disappointing -- a bit dry and mushy, and without much flavor. Scallops are done simply, in parsley, garlic and butter (perhaps a bit too much of it). Just as simple, and beautifully prepared, are softshell crabs -- small, delicate, wonderfully juicy, saut,eed in butter and topped with a crunchy counterpoint of sliced almonds.
Lamb, as chops or in a rack, is superlative -- seared crusty outside, pink and juicy within, the chops topped with a bit of tomato laced with garlic and herbs. Duck with prune sauce is a winner, too, the meat moist and flavorful, properly pink near the bone, a little chewy but not overly so. The sauce suffers from no excesses -- not too sweet or too fruity or too liquored, it brings to the duck the slight tartness it needs. And there's a superlative wild rice alongside, cooked so it's firm, a little crunchy, but not tough. There's usually a good breast of chicken dish each night, with the same fine wild rice. The kitchen knows how to do a fine, pungent green peppercorn sauce, too, and you can sometimes have it with very good rabbit, tender and mild in flavor.
Chalet de la Paix has come up with a novel approach to the dessert cart. Instead of loading it up with lots of soggy cardboard pastries, they offer just a few that are really fresh. Look especially for the hazelnut or mocha-buttercream cakes, complex, multiflavored, multitextured beauties.
Finally, a few cavils. Why the poorly handled bread, soft and rubbery? (They'd never tolerate that in a Paris suburb.) And why not a really good brewed decaffeinated coffee? And, most important, why not a little mercy with the prices? Why not emulate some of the downtown places and offer a special complete dinner each night, or an early-bird special on weekdays, or whatever?
Those minor gripes aside, the suburbs need more places like Chalet de la Paix. May its quality not falter.