I've been searching for Robert Wiedmaier. I first encountered him at the Cafe on M, where he turned a nondescript hotel restaurant into the city's best dining for the price. But the hotel changed hands and Wiedmaier left, later surfacing at Aquarelle, where he tried to fill Jean-Louis Palladin's shoes.
They didn't fit.
Now, again following in a major chef's footsteps, Wiedmaier has moved into what was Yannick Cam's Provence and renamed it for his infant son, Marcel. He's brought considerable talent with him, though it doesn't always show. I keep looking.
Provence's dining room needed little revamping, given its field-stone and sunflower-yellow walls, quarry-tile floors and glimpses of the open kitchen. The arched ceiling still bounces sound around so that sometimes you can overhear a conversation across the room, and the tables for two are unfortunately cozy with their neighbors, but in many ways the place is a beauty. Any time now it's expected to extend its charm to sidewalk tables.
Wiedmaier has kept some of the old staff, adding to it a cadre of experienced waiters. There are glitches -- a busboy trying to clear the table for dessert after only the appetizers -- but you're as likely to be served expertly here as at any of the city's top restaurants.
And Wiedmaier has collected a wine cellar of 200,000 bottles, impressive for a new restaurant, though the list is oddly arranged. The first page is made up of wines under $60, but the rest of the list also includes bottles in that range. And the wines are arranged by region so that you have to examine each for the reds or the whites. Fortunately, sommelier Thierry Lesparre is adept at finding satisfying choices, whether you're looking to spend three digits or $30 a bottle.
Wiedmaier, with his elaborate wine list and ambitious pricing, obviously intends to compete in the heavyweight class. And he shows signs he'll get there. Not yet, though.
I'm still not always sure where to find him at his best. Is it in the appetizers? The fish dishes? The daily specials? The signature dishes that display his magic touch are mostly those he brought from the Cafe on M: An appetizer of breast of squab is well browned and rare, its gaminess highlighted by celery root puree and sauteed wild mushrooms. Another bird, this one a boneless quail served as an entree, is ballooned with an airy stuffing of foie gras mousse-line and mushrooms. At lunch, the seared tuna appetizer with caramelized garlic and the entree of salmon encrusted with fennel and coriander raise fish cookery to glory, with sauces that are weightless yet intense. Wiedmaier's potato cake with olives and onions is lacy and crunchy, collapsing softly at a bite; it is a side dish worth the trip. He also has some genius for vegetable purees, though he exercises it all too frequently -- making me wonder how much young Marcel might be influencing the menu.
You could wend your way through the above dishes and conclude that the restaurant was dazzling. Or, with a few substitutions, you might deem it very good but not quite memorable: An appetizer of seared scallops is slightly overcooked, though saved by a potato gaufrette and a fennel puree. Soft-shell crabs come lightly sauteed with vibrant baby spinach and a citrus emulsion. Fish stew floats impeccable finfish and still-crisp vegetables along with overcooked scallops in a light broth.
Wiedmaier's foie gras appetizer is cooked expertly and its sour cherries are a juicy counterpoint to the richness, but you would expect nothing less for $19. Brandade of cod is not the intense salt-cod potato fluff you might anticipate, but a mountain of chopped cod and potato that barely tastes of its fish, piled high with pale shoestring potatoes. Boudin blanc has an equally elusive flavor, though its silky texture and topping of onions and bacon are irresistible.
But if you happened onto the wrong side of the menu, you'd wonder why everyone else was eating there. I'd welcome the lunch-time confit of duck without the duck itself. Its arugula salad with black olives and its garlic mashed potatoes drizzled with duck juices are worth scraping off the plate. But the duck legs taste painfully briny rather than salt-cured, and their limp skin is unappetizing. One entree, though, really left me wondering where Wiedmaier was. It was a special of leg of lamb with cumin, an easy winner. But it looked like gray machine-sliced meat, flabby and soggy, in a too-sweet madeira sauce. I'd have thought it was leftovers from the staff dinner, except that it was the special every day I dined there.
Not much imagination goes into Marcel's desserts, given that they run $7 to $10. But they're straightforward classics, the likes of chocolate marquis, creme brulee, chocolate terrine and sorbets. All good. The bits of adventure, though, haven't such sweet success. Warm plum and cinnamon tart was inevitably replaced with a pear version, and coconut blancmange combined dreary, starchy custard with achingly sweet caramelized pineapple. Except for its chic swoop of a cookie, it belonged back in the kitchen.
With those 200,000 bottles of wine at Marcel's, though, the sensible way to end the meal would be with the last of your fine burgundy and a plate of cheeses, half a dozen types, all in excellent condition, artfully arranged with sliced fruits and a crusty baguette.
MARCEL'S -- 2401 PENNSYLVANIA AVE. NW. 202-296-1166. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: lunch appetizers $6 to $11.50, entrees $13.50 to $21; dinner appetizers $7.50 to $19, entrees $17.50 to $28; three-course pre-theater menu $30. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $60 to $90 per person.
It's not been a good season for two-star chefs on the Eastern Seaboard. Both Gerard Pangaud and Jean-Louis Palladin long ago came to Washington with two Michelin stars to their credit, and continued to be bright stars here. Now Pangaud has closed his Vintage restaurant in Georgetown (which leaves him with Gerard's Place on 15th Street). Palladin, after departing D.C. for Las Vegas, finally fulfilled his plan to open in New York. But his Palladin restaurant there hasn't been faring well. The New York press, while giving him credit for some brilliant moments, quickly broadcast the restaurant's deficiencies.
I tried the restaurant soon after it opened in May, and found it far short of Jean-Louis' heyday at the Watergate. Raw-fish appetizers were pedestrian, and a couple of fish entrees were boring. Yet the dishes inspired by Palla-din's Gascon birthplace were thrilling: duck confit with crisp skin and meat like aged wine; foie gras and oxtail stuffed into a crepinette accompanied by marrow flan cooked in the bone; and scallops with foie gras wrapped in a cabbage leaf. Nor has he lost his touch with the soft-shell crabs he learned to cook in Washington. -- P.C.R.
CAPTION: Looking for Mr. Wiedmaier: the chef and his Chilean sea bass.