Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, V, MC, CB, DC, Choice. Reservations suggested. Prices for lunch: appetizers $3.25 to $5.75, entrees $6.75 to $16, desserts $2.75 to $5. For dinner: appetizers $3.75 to $6.50, "entrees $11.50 to $19, desserts $3 to $5. Dinner with wine, tax and tip $30 or more per person.
Cordell Avenue in Bethesda was once best known for its surf shop and parking garage. But it has become a Restaurant Block, with La Panetteria serving fresh and expert pizzas, and now Le Marmiton offering inventive French food. Add La Miche to the mix and you have two very charming French restaurants within a baguette's length of each other.
What maks Le Marmiton special is, foremost, its menu, which is printed daily and ranges through a dozen appetizers, a few soups, salads and nearly a dozen and a half main dishes.
It's not the volume alone, though, that is special. You have to look at the dishes themselves: Cream of Crab Soup with Almond, Radish Leaf Soup, Brioche Toast of Chanterelles and Marrow, Fettucini in Cream Sauce with Smoked Duck and Oregano. Those are just appetizers. Among the main dishes might be Veal Tournedos with Shiitake and Oyster Mushrooms, Breast of Duck with Quince Apple and Sweet Brown Sauce, Loin of Venison with Chestnut Pur,ee and Cranberries, Tournedo of Monkfish with Creme d'Ail, Red Fish au Fenouille, Maine Lobster with Vermouth Butter.
This is a restaurant where you should try something you've never even heard of before. Radish Leaf Soup, for instance, is pale green and creamy, fairly thick and hearty, with a distinctive flavor from these peppery greens. Cream of Crab Soup is similarly thick and filling, with a delicate interplay of the seafood and almond nuttiness. Both are delectable.
One evening we ordered nothing but appetizers, because we couldn't choose between the likes of smoked trout with radicchio and warm potatoes, or green beans with smoked duck. I have found a few disappointments among the dozen appetizers or so I have tasted: The snails in tiny hollowed-out potatoes look charming but twice tasted soggy; the brioche with chanterelles and marrow was once deliciously unctuous but another time oversalted and cooked down to excessive intensity; spinach salad with smoked duck and oranges had too sharp a dressing and the ingredients didn't meld; and one night the fettuccine with salmon, basil and clams lacked zest, for it was drowned in butter and underseasoned, but the clams themselves were perfect.
Often enough though -- and increasingly over the months -- the appetizers have been delightful to see as well as to eat. And even more cnsistently the main dishes have been exceptionally good. One night sweetbreads were breaded in fresh crumbs and saut,eed perfectly, nicely sparked by a sauce of lemon and fresh basil. Lamb has been saut,eed and teamed with julienned ginger in a sauce of mild but lingering flavor. Lamb has also been roasted as a loin and fanned out on a lovely limpid brown sauce flavored with thyme, or cut into steaks and topped with roquefort sauce. Veal is beautifully prepared, neither cut too thin nor pounded too hard nor cooked too long, served with a simple earthy topping of shiitake and oyster mushrooms. The kitchen also does well by fish, serves lobster half out of the shell and cooked carefully, sauced with plain or vermouth butter. Imagination and care show in this kitchen, not only in the cooking but in the purchasing. You will regularly find extra-thin green beans and wild mushrooms. There are tropical star fruit or quinces to serve with duck, fresh herbs to season meats and fresh monkfish, tuna and dove sole in the fish section.
Accompaniments get at least as much attention as the meat or fish. A main dish might come with six vegetables -- crustily browned potatoes, tiny turnips on the stem, broccoli in florets and puree, crisp bright julienned carrots and a cherry tomato cut into a flower. And they taste as good as they look. Appetizers might be garnished with a branch of fresh dill wedged into a tiny tomato. The soup might have sprigs of basil. And between courses there might be sherbet, as light as snow, prettily decorated with a sprig of fennel perhaps, though needing more intensity and acid balance.
The wine list is small, yet there is a good choice of house wines. And while prices are high, you can find a pleasant muscadet, pouilly fuisse or chenin blanc for under $20.
The pastry chef keeps busy at Le Marmiton, for there are chocolate mousse cakes, fruit tarts, fruit mousses, pears in wine, homemade sherbets and custards, most of them quite good in their creamy, fudgy, nutty modes. A strawberrry mousse one day was gelatinous and tasteless but then the chocolate mousse was as dense and dark as a chocolate lover could wish. In general, the mousse-filled and buttercream-layered tortes have been the highlights.
Finally there is good coffee, particularly good decaffeinated espresso, which is hard to find in local restaurants.
So here is some uncommonly charming French food, and the prices -- moderate to high -- justifiably reflect it. So does the service, except for a certain overzealousness in asking after your welfare too often and removing plates too quickly, which has been calming down more recently. More important, the service is accommodating and energetic. And the room is attractive in a quiet provencal mood, with flowered wallpaper and sheer lacy curtains. The tables could benefit from a little more space between them, but otherwise this is a quiet and sophisticated-looking dining room and a restaurant that makes clear that the emphasis is on the food. Happily so.