Open for lunch Monday through Friday 12 to 2 p.m., for dinner Monday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, V, MC, CB. Reservations necessary. Prices: for lunch appetizers $2.25-$22, entrees $11-$28 (for two), desserts $2.50-$5.75; for dinner appetizers $5.50-$35, entrees $16-$52 (for two), desserts $4.75-$6. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50-$70 a person.
Four old kings among Washington French restaurants are dead: Rive Gauche, Sans Souci, Le Bagatelle, Le Provencal; only a few of that regime of the '70s survive. And still the king among those kings is Le Lion d'Or. But how does it rank against the young new royalty? Does this once-grandest of Washington restaurants still have its vigor? The answer to the second question is easy: Le Lion d'Or remains what it once was. The food, the service and even the somewhat redecorated environment -- a look of solid, old fashioned affluence -- could probably be interchanged with that of a decade ago.
What has changed is the rest of the restaurant world. New levels of imagination, ambition and ingredient quality have placed Washington's top restaurants among the top in the world. Le Lion d'Or has far more stiff competition. And its cuisine is less exciting than that of such restaurants as Le Pavillon and Jean- Louis (as well as less expensive, it should be added).
But returning to this environment of tradition reminds me of what is missing in the new. There is a much more energetic and convivial atmosphere in this old-guard dining room: baskets of rolls are being passed, dessert carts are cruising, carts are rolled tableside for the last-minute touches. There is that active connection between dining room and kitchen.
Even the diners are more active. Traditional French food is in larger portions and pieces than at new-style restaurants. The diner is cutting the meat, chewing the vegetables; if you've grown accustomed to dining on nouvelle cuisine, it is exciting to look around and realize that everyone is in motion.
The diner is challenged from the beginning. The captain recites a list of specials too long for anyone to remember, so by now the recitation has become the running joke of Le Lion d'Or. Then there is the long menu, full of enticements such as trout souffle,e with champagne sauce, flan of crab meat, rockfish in a crust, pigeon with foie gras sauce, quail with mushrooms, sweetbreads with port, veal with morels and truffles. It is a menu that focuses on the glamorous yet has room for a simple chicken roasted with tarragon.
This is a restaurant, though, where you should concentrate on the specials: It will be announced when there are fresh shrimp in the kitchen or when the wild mushrooms, first soft- shell crabs or the earliest summer vegetables are in. (But if you don't like budgetary surprises, ask about the price of anything not listed on the menu.)
For the most festive of dinners, start with champagne tinted pink with framboise. And examine the wine list, for it is fine reading. Wines may be pricey, but you can find whatever you want -- a rare champagne, a magnum or a half-bottle of bordeaux, an extraordinary dessert wine. There are some very good values, particularly among the California cabernet sauvignons.
Saucemaking is a high art at Le Lion d'Or. Duck p.at,e in a crust with sauce au sang is a rare find in Washington, and its blood sauce was as dark as chocolate, with a mysterious and wonderful flavor, as if meat had been turned into cream. But the p.at,e itself fell apart into chewy, salty cubes of meat, though the puff pastry was quite nice. Talent and flaws repeatedly seesaw at Le Lion d'Or. I've had a delectable and original crab cake that could have taught Chesapeake Bay cooks a thing or two, and its creamy pink tomato sauce enhanced the crab with its delicacy, but it was too salty. A thick fillet of Norwegian salmon showed again that this kitchen can prepare fish impeccably -- but its sauce had little character.
The best appetizers I have tasted this season included several p.at,es -- particularly the foie gras and the jellied rabbit. Also among the appetizers there is usually a scallop salad with coriander which tastes like seviche elevated to the Legion d'Honneur. The gravlax is impeccable, nicely dilled and well balanced, though it needs better bread than its flabby pumpernickel. And never pass up the opportunity to taste the fresh shrimp with basil shredded in a gentle beurre blanc; or if you feel extravagant, try foie gras in any guise, perhaps as a warm salad with artichoke bottoms. Among the most disappointing appetizers has been a seafood terrine, mildly fishy but without distinguishing flavor -- and again oversalted.
As for main dishes, when in doubt, opt for the simpler. Lamb with coarse mustard and lamb with tarragon have become Le Lion d'Or hallmarks. Rabbit is fine, typically served with mustard sauce or sometimes more inventively stuffed and smothered with shiitake mushrooms, garnished with a crisp potato cake. The list of game is tempting here, and such small birds as squab and quail are likely to be crisp and juicy, particularly appealing with wild mushrooms. Pheasant tends toward dryness, and Le Lion d'Or hasn't solved that problem: an elaborate pheasant souvaroff, baked in a copper casserole sealed with dough, is a magnificent presentation of game, foie gras and truffles which smelled wonderful but tasted dry, grainy, bitter, dull.
Seafoods are good choices -- from a perfectly grilled plain shad or shad roe with classic anchovy sauce to a mixed grill of seafood that is memorable and served with three excellent sauces -- b,earnaise, mustard and anchovy. There is also a platter of mixed seafoods in a chive cream, but the grilled platter is more interesting.
If you favor souffl,es, don't forget to order one for dessert when you place your dinner order, for nobody in town makes them lighter, more intensely flavored or better balanced between crustiness and moistness. And though the pastry cart looks impressive, it takes some picking and choosing. There has been a fine, nutty tasting pistachio cake and an extravagantly creamy praline ice cream, but the cr,eme brul,ee tasted slapdash, and other pastries have been undistinguished. You might just have coffee filtr,e only -- and nibble the chocolate truffles, sugared nuts and cookies that accompany it.
Le Lion d'Or can be the smoothest restaurant in town, for its staff is experienced and knowledgeable. But its tables are so close that strangers routinely converse across table and trade tastes. And the staff can be rushed and neglectful at busy times, for this is a restaurant with plenty of regulars and celebrities, and they are apt to get the most attention. A retaurant this prominent draws criticism for playing favorites -- and also for not living up to expectations that may be unrealistic. Day after day, year after year, magic is hard to sustain.
But Le Lion d'Or remains a restaurant of excellence, of ambitiousness and quality. Flawed it is, but frequently enough it is a reminder of what has made French restaurants so long preeminent.