LES TROIS VISAGES DE LA SUISSE -- 1990 M St. NW. 202-293-1990. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner Monday through Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: In the bar/ grotto, appetizers $6.50 to $12.75, entrees $14 to $17.50. In the dining room, lunch appetizers $4.50 to $14.50, entrees $9.75 to $17; dinner appetizers $4.50 to $14, entrees $13.50 to $23.50. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50 to $60 per person in the dining room, about $20 to $40 per person in the bar/grotto.
HERE IS WHAT SAVVY RESTAURAteurs say we don't want anymore: French food (passe'), German food (too heavy), Italian food (too prevalent). Expensive restaurants are folly, fancy restaurants are out of step, and basement restaurants have always been risky.
Yet at Les Trois Visages, what should add up to a nightmare of a concept has turned out to be a dream of a restaurant. This is a grand Swiss restaurant in traditional style, and it has imported seven chefs from Switzerland to make it work. At first I gasped at the extravagance and the audacity; then I came to admire the competence.
The site was once Jacqueline's, but now it is a gallery of ancient family portraits and handsomely carved woodwork, a dining room in which a cadre of suave waiters in high-necked Swiss shirts serve with a European flair. It is a restaurant so dignified that it goes beyond stiffness to quiet graciousness. Dining at Les Trois Visages makes you feel as if Geneva were just outside the door.
The menu is evenly divided into Switzerland's three "faces" -- French, German and Italian -- with five appetizers and four entrees representing each. There is hardly a cliche in the bunch. Furthermore, nearly everything turns out to be more than you'd expect -- more glamorous, more intricate. An even greater surprise is that the German entrees are the most charming of all.
You are always offered three kinds of bread, made in-house and generally very good. At dinner you are brought little cheese puffs or tartelettes to nibble with your drinks, and after dinner a plate of beautiful cookies and chocolates, some delightfully filled with sorbet. The wine list is broad-ranging, with particularly interesting choices from Switzerland, of course. And there is a house cocktail of non-alcoholic wine with very alcoholic lemon vodka, presented in a tiny carafe that serves as the glass.
Among appetizers, the French contribute a wonderful stuffed cabbage with an airy meat filling, the cabbage overlaid with blanched bacon and the sauce a bouillon strewn with tiny diced root vegetables. The taste is rich, the texture light. Trout mousse is also luscious, and it's a pretty arrangement of two small pale pink truffle-topped timbales in a chive cream, garnished with puff-pastry fish. The French pa~te' looks even more ready to photograph with its decorative crust and colorful layers, but while it is a low-fat version, its flavor is also too lean. Both the French and Italians contribute marinated fish, pleasant but eclipsed by the more complex appetizers. I've preferred the Italian chef's creamy, faintly rosy red-wine risotto with Sbrinz cheese and the rustic salad with bacon, nuts and apples arranged in a pyramid over varied lettuces. And the Germans star with two of the appetizers: a terrine layering quail breast, foie gras and mushrooms in madeira aspic accompanied by miniature top-hatted brioches; and sweetbreads, pistachios and morels under a dome of puff pastry. These are first-course spectacles.
Main courses too bring honor to the Germans. There's a creamy ragout with big chunks of salmon saute'ed so the surface is crusty and the interior is just a touch rare. Its sauce -- a variation of beurre blanc with a touch of pepper puree -- is delicately aromatic and tart from dill and sorrel. The German baby chicken is crisp-skinned and handsome, garnished with tiny onions and wild mushrooms, all adding up to plain good food. And there's a German veal with nuts and raisins in cream sauce. The glory of the German entrees, however, is a "rich man's version of a mixed grill," which is a still life of tiny delectables: beef filet, liver, superb white sausages, the most delicate baby kidneys and doll-size strips of bacon, all impeccably grilled and accompanied by carefully carved vegetables. The sauce, on the side, is not distinctive, but the dish needs none.
Among French entrees, the chicken fricassee is handsome, but the sauce has been bitter, perhaps from unevaporated alcohol in the wine, and the meat lacks succulence and flavor. Steamed pike decorated with crayfish is unexciting, so I wasn't tempted to try France's perch with grapes. Italy offers a perfectly respectable grilled calf's liver with basil butter; heavily breaded, compact and dreary fish cakes; rolled veal with bacon and sage; and braised sirloin in wine sauce. Portions are large, and the large white plates are lavishly garnished.
There are usually a couple of specials, frequently a sumptuous appetizer casserole of mixed wild mushrooms in a buttery cream, and sometimes a fish called tilapia in a coarse mustard sauce -- the preparation is correct but not particularly interesting. One admirable touch is the vegetable accompaniments, each different.
There are desserts to suit all tastes, from a light sorbet made of marc, a clear brandy, to a homey cornmeal flan topped with quartered apples and raisins, to a stunning and rich Creme Beau-Rivage, a ring of caramel custard topped with rosettes of whipped cream and tiny pastry cornets piped with raspberry mousse. And those are just some of the French choices. Besides the Creme Beau-Rivage, the most exciting dessert is Italy's orange segments glazed with warm lemon mousse. Never has something creamy been more refreshing. Ravioli fritters filled with prunes and apples would be a contender if they didn't follow so much other food. Oddly, the cakes are seriously flawed (too dry being the common denominator). Hot apple rosti is also flat, just diced apples and bread cubes that don't marry in their baking. There's more, but you've got the highlights.
In addition to the main restaurant, there is another small dining room, the Grotto, noisy and rustic, with wooden benches and tables. Its small menu offers salads, plates of outstanding imported cold cuts, a few pastas that aren't very good, soup (don't miss the oxtail if it's available) and the best fondue Washington has seen in decades. It's made with emmenthal, vacherin and tilsit cheeses, combined into a strongly gamy ooze with white wine, a touch of kirsch and a whiff of garlic. That fine house-made bread is cubed so that each piece has some crust to keep it firmly on the fork. Available for a minimum of two people, the fondue can be the center of a memorable (though fairly expensive) evening, preceded by the crudite's -- an excellent melange of salads -- and accompanied by a Fendant wine. The Grotto's menu also features meat or fish cooked at the table on a heated stone, which is sort of fun, but even with high-quality ingredients the results can be vaguely disappointing. I'd rather have my meat grilled properly in the kitchen, but the fish works well. And there are elaborate ice cream sundaes for dessert, but none I would recommend in light of the other wonderful options. The Grotto is worth remembering when you want something casual, a meal at an odd hour or a chance to escape the world with a European newspaper -- rolled up on dowels near the bar -- a glass of wine and a little something to eat.
But then, Les Trois Visages is worth remembering, period.