LE CAPRICE -- 2348 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 337-3394. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Friday 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Thursday 6:30 to 10 p.m., Friday 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 6 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch and dinner appetizers $3.95 to $9.75, entrees $13.50 to $19. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $40 to $50 per person.
THANKS TO JULIA CHILD, AMERica's dinner parties improved in the '50s. Home cooks learned to make cassoulet and ga~teau de cre~pes a` la florentine. Ratatouille became routine. Some of the attempts were awkward and overreaching, but most were delicious ambition.
Le Caprice is like one of those dinner parties. This tiny restaurant is as intimate as a family dining room, though prettier than most. On the blue tablecloths are little bunches of garden flowers, and light from pierced metal lamps throws a filigree of shadows on the walls. In good weather there's dining on the terrace. And the menu, which changes with the seasons, includes French dishes -- some of them reflecting the chef's Alsatian background -- that I've never seen on other local restaurant menus. Le Caprice serves ambitious food, beautifully arranged food, far more elegant food than its entree prices of $13.50 to $19 would suggest. But like that fancy home cooking of the early Julia Child era, it sometimes over- reaches.
The summer menu has 15 appetizers plus a special or two, and most are exclusive to this restaurant. It lists the usual crudites, vichyssoise and soft-shell crabs amandine, but goes on to sweetbread terrine with figs, and fresh tomato mousse with seafood. Even before local tomatoes appeared on the market, the provencal salad with marinated goat cheese was sensational. Its sliced tomatoes, cheese, fresh basil and two kinds of olives are moistened with a vinaigrette made with sausage drippings and bits of sausage, a luscious variation on the American hot bacon dressing. Among hot appetizers, a fresh artichoke bottom is topped with a bit of minced crab and oysters, wrapped in puff pastry to form a charming porcupine and surrounded by a moat of tart, velvety beurre blanc. The puff pastry is a little gummy in the middle, but otherwise it is a delightful first-course pastry.
As for the misguided ambition, foie gras is a bargain here -- less than $10 as an appetizer -- and it is stunningly garnished, but its aspic has been flavorless. And then there are the total missteps: goat cheese, apples and pecans lost in bland and insignificant puff pastry excess, an anonymous-tasting and pasty curried crab stuffed in endive that tastes like the kind of thing that once gave canapes a bad name. Creamed dishes, including soups, have been so heavy and creamy that you might not guess their base without the menu to cue you.
Main dishes are not only more reliable, they are also more interesting than the appetizers. Thin slices of salmon are wrapped around a stuffing of minced clams (which, oddly, could have been minced mushrooms for all their taste) and poached, then garnished with designs made of shiitake shreds and parsley, surrounded by house-made noodles in a buttery lime sauce. Despite the insignificance of the clams, the dish is wonderful. The fish, the noodles, the sauce all melt into one another. Salmon trout with champagne cream sauce is a dream of a dish, blending delicate fish flavors and a velvety texture with the buttery wine taste and airy texture of the sauce. Among fish dishes, only the skate has faltered. The fish itself has a rope-like texture; and it comes with pastry-wrapped shrimp that are greasy and iodiney, though the warm balsamic vinaigrette is a sumptuous variation on the usual black butter sauce.
What raise the meat dishes to glory are their accompaniments. The duck breast itself is fine -- rare and crisp-edged, though a little fatty -- and its faintly sweet clear sauce is presentable; but the stars of this presentation are the light, crisp conical potato croquettes, whole poached apricots and a tiny tartlet of aromatic creamed mushrooms. Beef a` la ficelle is a seldom-encountered preparation in which beef filet is simmered in bouillon rather than browned in an oven or grill. It nevertheless emerges as rare as desired, uterly tender and delicate. It is the most glamorous boiled beef, and it is accompanied by a sprinkling of coarse salt, lightly cooked cabbage, root vegetables carved into olive shapes, and mild bearnaise and creamy fresh horseradish sauces.
Other restaurants serve choucroute in the winter, but none serves the unusual variation that Le Caprice features when the weather turns cool. Its "sauerkraut" base is made of shredded turnips -- fermented in-house -- rather than cabbage, much milder than the usual sauerkraut. It is topped with a grand array of juicy and tender smoked pork, the most airy liver dumpling and four or five kinds of outstanding sausages, plus slices of thick bacon and duck confit -- which has been the only less than succulent element. This Alsatian turnip confit makes winter welcome.
Le Caprice seems rather offhand about its bread (warm French rolls, once served burned) and its wine list -- small, young, most notable for its selections by the glass and the fact that the waiter brings the bottle to show you before he pours that glass. Here the focus is squarely on food (as well as service that does the food proud).
If you want a dramatic ending to your meal, you can order a dessert assortment -- a bargain at $6.50. Or concentrate on one seasonal tart framed with a sauce painting. Depending on the season, you might find rhubarb topped with a latticework of meringue or raspberry in a warm, puffy, souffle'ed custard. The crusts range from crisply fragile to hard and dry, but even at their worst you'll find tarts of doubly intense fruit flavors and beautifully textured fillings. A knockout chocolate dessert is inevitable on every menu these days, and at Le Caprice the triple chocolate terrine is so dense and fudgy you could imagine a whole forest of cacao trees having given their lives for it. What I like best about it, though, is its unusual coconut custard sauce garnished with slices of fresh coconut and other fruit.
No doubt about it -- you'll never get bored by the menu at Le Caprice.