Shoreham Hotel, 2500 Calvert St. NW. 234-0700.
Open 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Most dinner appetizers about $5, entrees $9 to $15. Complete dinner with wine or beer, tax and tip about $22 to $36 per person. AE, DC, MC, V.
SUPPOSE YOU WERE IN CHARGE of a major Washington hotel with facilities for only one restaurant. Bear in mind that you'll have to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and please a broad cross-section of palates. A conservative choice might be New American, which would include enough familiar ingredients to please the unadventuresome, yet enough panache for the upscale crowd.
But the folks at the recently renovated Shoreham apparently aren't so timid. They chose to re-create a French brasserie. With compromises, of course. A hotel is a hotel, and your average conventioneer may not want choucroute for dinner. So, in a section of the menu called "The American Corner" there are steaks, chops and a pasta dish, as well as sandwiches, salads and a hamburger. Even the French portion of the menu consists mainly of "safe" dishes. But beyond all this humdrum stuff are a few very interesting specialties.
Visually, the place is a smashing success. The designers have established the authentic aura of a brasserie -- warm, informal, bustling, clattery. There are multicolored tile floors and furnishings that gently evoke the 1930s -- bentwood chairs (remarkably comfortable), potted palms, Art Deco lighting fixtures and starched white linens. There's also a wonderful little marble-topped bar in one corner with a cheery bartender and an admirable selection of European beers and Alsace wines.
Most of the house specialties -- the choucroute, the couscous, the cassoulet -- are terrific. The more mundane French and American dishes are pleasant but unremarkable. A few items here and there are downright por.
The choucroute is a generous gem of a country dish in which braised sauerkraut enjoys a long and intimate relationship with smoked pork, two kinds of sausage, thick-sliced bacon, pig's knuckle and potatoes in a steaming metal pot -- a marriage made in heaven, in which each partner gives and takes flavor from the others. (The portion is large, so two diners might share one along with a large salad.)
The couscous is top-notch, too, served for two in a tableside production number that involves multiple metal pots and a chafing dish. The cracked semolina that makes up the base of this dish is flawlessly tender and fluffy, and the other ingredients -- stewed beef brisket, garlicky sausage, moist chicken-on-the-bone, tiny lamb skewers, vegetables -- are marvelously peppery and well-flavored. Like your food hotter? There's a fiery sauce on the side that will clear your head faster than any nostrum your pharmacist knows of.
The third gem, available only on Wednesdays, is the cassoulet, a long-cooked mixture of white beans, garlic sausage, lamb and duck served in a casserole. In this dish, as with the choucroute, the secret is the blending of flavors, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. To round out the top-of-the-line dishes, there's a good if somewhat bland bouillabaisse, with a generous portion of fish, clams, lobster and shrimp, its broth gently flavored with what tastes like fennel. It could use a garlicky rouille alongside to pep things up.
What do you drink with stout-hearted dishes like these? Monique's equally stout-hearted European beers, such as the Belgian Duvel or the Alsace La Belle Strasbourgeoise or, if you don't mind stretching the geography, the Italian Moretti. Or a good Alsace wine, like the crisply dry 1983 Pinots d'Alsace at $10 a bottle. So far, so good: a fine cassoulet or choucroute, a good Alsace wine or beer. What's missing? An authentic, crusty French bread, of course. Unfortunately, Monique serves soft, blobby little rolls. The good French bread is available, but you have to ask. Do so.
As a prelude to those hearty dishes, consider the fresh mussels in a lovely oil-lemon broth; or a delightfully winy, tart combination of baked artichoke heart, ricotta and prosciutto; or a combination of three excellent p.at,es; or snails under a lovely, crackly puff pastry; or, when it's made with the impressive marinara sauce, a shared order of the pasta of the day. The mussel and brie soup is subtly flavored and unusual. The other soups aren't worth ordering, and the onion soup, with its boggy mush of bread and onions, should be particularly avoided.
Among the nice but commonplace entrees, duck breast is admirably tender, its slightly tart currant sauce lightly applied. Grilled salmon is first-class, as is the simple, butter-saut,eed whole trout.
Fish steamed in parchment has been fresh but dull tasting despite the herb garnish. Veal is of excellent quality with good flavor and texture, and its buttery sorrel sauce is flavored with finesse. Hamburgers are very good, omelets ordinary.
The least successful entrees were a trio of chicken dishes: chicken breast with morels, dry and stingy with the mushrooms; chicken fricassee (the Tuesday special), a dull white monotone reminiscent of convalescent food; and coq au vin, an unusually poor version with a thick, pasty white wine sauce and sticky noodles.
There are some good desserts made on the premises, among them a walnut rum torte, a buttery pear cake and a dark chocolate mousse. But the chocolate cake has been waxy and the napoleon and fruit tarts are sometimes soggy.
When you're deciding what to order at Monique, remember that you can eat broiled fish or steak au poivre almost anywhere. Concentrate on the few robust country dishes they do best here, and be glad the Shoreham bet on a brasserie instead of a fern bar.