THE PEASANT -- Market Square, 801 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-638-2140. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner daily 5:30 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested at dinner; limited reservations at lunch. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch entrees $6 to $10; dinner appetizers $5.75 to $7.95, entrees $8 to $22. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $40 to $50 per person.
PERHAPS IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN called the Pioneer rather than the Peasant, for this is the first of the new restaurants to stretch east from Market Square along Pennsylvania Avenue. In paving the way, the Peasant has been crowded at lunch, busy at dinner and a beacon of optimism for downtown development.
This modern American restaurant, a branch of the Pleasant Peasant in Mazza Gallerie and the offspring of an Atlanta chain, is stylish and urbane. The large L-shaped dining room has high ceilings and acres of rich dark wood. Its space is expanded by mirrored panels and picture windows that frame Pennsylvania Avenue's panaroma of limestone. It looks clubby and handsome, the sort of dining room you might expect in San Francisco or Boston. This Peasant is dignified.
It has its informal touches, though. The menus are chalked on small blackboards, implying that the selections are up-to-the-minute. But you begin to wonder when you see such entries as "soup of the day" and "daily chowder" and hear the waiter add daily specials to the choices. Since the menus are minimally descriptive, the waiters recite the list of dishes and expand on the descriptions. These are delightful, enthusiastic waiters who appear to know the food -- but they don't know how to pronounce all the ingredients. So the oral descriptions can be confusing.
Among the appetizers (available only at dinner), some are meal-size, and most are so much better than the main dishes that you might be tempted to make a meal out of them. Thai ribs are terrific. Half a dozen large meaty pork ribs are slathered with a thick piquant peanut-chili sauce. The balance of tang, heat and nutty starchiness is just fine, and if you ordered a portion for yourself, there wouldn't be much point to following it with an entree. Shrimp re'moulade is one of the best versions I have tasted. The shrimp are moist and supple, and the creamy pink New Orleans-style re'moulade that smothers them is teary-hot with Creole mustard. It's a revisionist version, with diced cucumbers and diced peppers for crunch and a crown of thin, crisp and wonderful french-fried onion rings, which suggests that some lilies improve with gilding. Wild mushroom strudel with a buttery pink sauce is not original, but it is very good, the shiitakes flavorful and the phyllo wrapper neither greasy nor dry.
The Peasant serves crab cakes with Southwestern seasonings, as an appetizer at dinner or an entree at lunch. And while they haven't the light touch and succulent backfin crab meat we expect at upscale restaurants, the Southwestern accent of cumin and chili works, particularly since it is applied sparingly. Better than the crab cakes themselves are the thin, crunchy onion rings and the tomato-onion salsa that garnish the plate.
And in line with its name, the Peasant serves good hearty soups. I've come across a thick creamy clam chowder packed with diced potatoes and soft juicy pieces of clam. There's likely to be a rich, equally thick and creamy corn-shrimp chowder, and a chunky tomato soup -- also as thick as a stew -- laced with basil.
The appetizer list generally includes a pasta and seafood combination at dinner, and sometimes a whole head of cauliflower with cheese sauce. These are presumably meant to be shared or followed by something rather light. Mainly, the inclination here is to impress the diner with quantity rather than simply leave quality to do its job alone.
Entrees at dinner are preceded by a salad, either Caesar salad (crisp romaine and indifferent dressing with gritty parmesan) or a house salad. That's a better bet, a big colorful toss of greens, cucumbers and tomatoes with a choice of dressings, including a commendable house-made low-fat version.
After such promising beginnings, I have been consistently surprised by how disappointing the entrees have been. Honey-glazed lamb sounds like a sure winner, but the New Zealand lamb tastes strong and is devoid of juices (but not sufficiently devoid of fat). Oriental plum duck might be all right if you could taste the bird, but the thick sweet coating of plum glaze overwhelms any other flavor and turns the skin soggy as well. There is an array of fish choices with such inventive seasonings as juniper berries or wasabi, but most of the time the fish has been grilled to a dreary dryness, and when it hasn't tasted fishy it has tasted bland. As for pasta, once was enough. The waitress highly recommended the pasta with artichokes and pistachios at lunch, assuring me that the artichokes were fresh. But not only were they tinny, mushy canned artichoke hearts, the pasta was heavy, doughy and limp. I picked out the pistachios and left hungry. The pasta didn't even have the benefit of the vegetables that accompany the meat and seafood entrees, usually nice creamy potatoes au gratin and a fresh green vegetable. Bread at the Peasant is a squishy, greasy version of garlic bread -- halves of flabby rolls sprinkled with cheese and heated but barely browned.
The Peasant restaurants are known for dazzling-looking desserts, most at least six inches high and weighted down with whipped cream. They make you feel like a little kid with a big banana split, and they are generally scrumptious for the first three bites. The key lime pie, which has the consistency of the kind of "whipped cream" that comes frozen in tubs, is overwhelmed by the flavor of its raspberry sauce and doesn't hold its charm for even two bites. The chocolate toffee pie is a killer but has kept me mesmerized for several indulgent moments as I mixed and matched spoonfuls of chopped toffee candy, (real) whipped cream, gooey caramel, crushed chocolate cookies and chocolate cream as rich as frozen fudge frosting. It tastes like layers constructed from a Halloween goody bag. Raspberry brule'e is austere in comparison. It is raspberries buried in sour cream and brown sugar, glazed with sugar until the surface is hard as candy, and it is lovely stuff. But my favorite is the apple pie. The chunky tart apples cut the sweetness of the cinnamon-syrup morass, the walnuts add a welcome texture, and the crust is crunchy and tender. These are giddy desserts, all of them fun except the dry, bland cheesecake.
The Peasant's formula is to serve cheerfully and pile the plates high. If you have to pick your way through the culinary bric-a-brac to find the few treasures, so be it. The Peasant is an oasis in a deserted section of downtown, and it's taking a lead in bringing part of the city to life.