LAVANDOU -- 3321 CONNECTICUT AVE. NW. 202-966-3002. Open:
for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate smoking area. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.25 to $5.95, entrees $7.50 to $13.95;
dinner appetizers $4.75 to $7.95, entrees $12.95 to $17.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $30 to $35 per person.
Sometimes bigger is better.
French restaurants are returning to those warm spots in our hearts, and Lavandou is one reason why. This Cleveland Park restaurant was so bursting at the seams that it had to close for a few months and double its size. Still, even on a weeknight, people wait in line.
Why is that? Much as I hesitate to mention this, the place doesn't have great food. And its pleasant, lively burble can turn into a din when there's a large party having a rollicking good time (which seems to happen frequently).
What makes Lavandou such a bright spot for its neighbors, besides its location, is the breadth of the menu. You could dine there every night for a month without duplicating your entree. It's hard to imagine all of this coming from one kitchen. The menu could compete with a Greek diner's for its abundance of choices.
And given the history of French restaurants here, Lavandou astonishes us with the modesty of its prices. Even the filet mignon doesn't run over $15.95, and the seafood entrees, the most expensive, top out at $17.95. It's a pleasure just to run the sensible prices through one's mind: Such specialties as boudin noir, bourride, lamb steak with anchovy butter, and brochette of organ meats cost $16.95 with a glass of wine included. An early bird dinner is $14.95.
The "old" Lavandou lost a lot of points for its cramped quarters, and its service often reflected the irritations of overcrowding. Now the place is twice as wide, with the sense of light, air and space increased fourfold. Sentimental murals of Provence stretch over sunflower-yellow banquettes. And the waiters reflect the sunshine in their breezy, genial rush. On a busy night (just about every night), the service can be confused, but I'll take such friendly confusion in a dining room over grouchy efficiency.
I'm less patient, though, with a rushed or confused kitchen. When sweet and succulent steamed baby clams are swimming in a jarring amount of vinegar, I recoil at the waste. On days when the large scallops are leached of flavor and the jumbo shrimp taste of iodine, it doesn't matter that they're imaginatively teamed with white bean stew, bits of ham, cabbage and verjus. The dish is a loss.
Far more often, the cooking is presentable. And if you're inclined to order organ meats, it's better than that. Grilled bread with chicken livers is plenty to share as an appetizer, but you might not want to. It's delicious and substantial enough to consider an entree. The flavor of the gently cooked livers is heightened with shallots and port wine, and they are piled on a thin slab of crisply toasted country bread on a bed of watercress dressed with porcini oil. It tastes more sumptuous than the grilled bread with brandade -- a salt-cod paste made mild by potato puree -- though that's also delicious in its restrained way. Pissaladiere, though, has less Provencal character. Instead of the classic crisp pizza or shallow tart, this pissaladiere is a kind of thick bread round, topped with sweet caramelized onions and anchovies or with goat cheese, plus a classic nut-oil salad on the side.
Among the more conventional entrees, none matches the sweetbreads or the calf's liver. Sweetbreads are deftly cooked and wrapped in a thin lentil pancake that adds a pleasant graininess to the rich meat, balanced by a ring of clear, sharp verjus and ginger marinade. The liver, very tender and cooked just pink, is similarly saved from unctuousness by a cleansing drizzle of vinegar and a hail of fresh red currants bursting with tart juice. Boudin noir, that haunting blood sausage, badly needs seasoning, even salt, but still tastes warm and earthy. Lamb stew, on the other hand, is a wonderful collection of beans with artichoke bottoms, carrots, turnips and celery, but my lamb had turned dry and crumbly, and the spiky artichokes had been insufficiently trimmed.
The menu reads with great promise, but its satisfactions are intermittent. It makes much of steamed mussels, offering four different broths and accompanying them with french fries as Europeans do. Given all that emphasis, the mussels are a surprise: They're overcooked and mushy, and the fries are no better than frozen.
Yet you can't give up on Lavandou's seafood when an appetizer of stuffed calamari is bursting with a soft green filling that may not taste like the promised "seafood, nuts and herbs" but has a homey flavor that blends winningly with its bed of brothy saffron rice.
The trick is to not take Lavandou too seriously. It's fine for a casual dinner, an unassuming evening. You can luxuriate in a soft, airy duck liver terrine topped with golden raisins steeped in liqueur for a mere $6.95, and not obsess about whether it has a slightly preserved taste. You can try a seasonal oddity like baby eel and forgive that its elusive flavor is lost in pungent grapefruit. You can while away a summer evening with a plate of charcuterie: pate, duck liver, ham, garlic sausage and irresistibly subtle smoked duck with a nutty little string bean salad. You can dine lightly on a plate of vegetables. Or indulge with a plate of cheeses. So what if they are not star quality? And if the pastries are not made on the premises? No matter. They come from Patisserie Poupon in Georgetown, and they're awfully pretty and every bit as creamy or chocolaty as they look. There's also a perfectly good creme brulee, made in-house.
Lavandou is, after all, a neighborhood restaurant. It just happens to have a repertoire three or four times that of the more typical neighborhood French restaurant.
Why are all those men in suits and women in business dress filing into the College Park Days Inn on weekday evenings? They're Koreans and Korean Americans yearning for a taste of home. This Days Inn on Route 1 is the site of the perky pink-trimmed dining room of Yi Jo, a Korean restaurant that serves packed houses night after night. The menu lists all the Korean standards -- marinated meats barbecued at the table, bibim bap, chop chae, fiery or chilled noodle soups -- and the cooking seems on a par with the many Korean restaurants of Annandale. The stand-out, though, is the seafood-and-scallion pancake, this one as large as a family-size pizza and so chock-full of seafood there's hardly room for the batter. You certainly don't have to be Korean to love this lacy fried extravaganza. -- P.C.R.
CAPTION: Room for a crowd: Even at double its original size, the recently expanded Lavandou is often packed.