LE RELAIS -- 1025 SENECA RD., GREAT FALLS. 703-444-4060. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: lunch appetizers $5.95 to $11.50, entrees $10.50 to $18.50; dinner appetizers $7.50 to $14.50, entrees $12.50 to $25.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $55 to $70 per person.
What does it take to make a restaurant French? A name preceded by "Le" or "La"? Then Le Relais qualifies. Escargots and foie gras on the menu? Le Relais has both. Yet to call this place French would be to miss the point. Those snails and goose livers are mere asides, gestures of Frenchness. The cuisine that matters here ignores national boundaries. The result is a menu of light, sleekly modern dishes with plenty of vegetables and a Mediterranean influence that unites France and Italy, and wherever else strikes the chef's fancy, in a blissfully mixed marriage.
Sleekly modern also describes the look of the place: creamy walls inset with layered flagstone, accents of light wood everywhere, an airy, natural feeling. Think of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater and you'll get the picture. But don't be fooled by the relaxed aura. Behind the scenes is a super-organized operation. Notice the phalanx of servers going through their well-choreographed drill at your table; even the presentation of the bread is a production. Check out the daily specials, beautifully printed (not photocopied) in two-week increments, and the equally impressive to-go menu, including full dinners. And if you have an hour or so to spare, pore over the book-length wine list, impeccably catalogued and annotated; we stopped counting at 450 items. Le Relais also sells the wines to go, and if you want to sample some by the glass, there is a tapas bar, complete with an instructional menu on wine tasting. The restaurant will bake you a special birthday cake with 24 hours' notice, and in its spare time it serves brunch. We wouldn't be shocked if the waiter offered to tune up your car while you ate.
Consistency should be a strong point in a restaurant this well organized, and it is. There are no real clunkers lurking on the menu, and if a dish is good one night, you can rely on it when you come back (if it's still there, that is -- the list changes seasonally).
Among the best of the recent appetizer offerings has been the ethereal ravioli with smoked salmon. Notice the wrappers, so thin they're almost transparent. What's even better is that the flavors are transparent, too; you can actually taste the tiny bits of avocado in the filling playing off the salmon. Lightness also shines in the simple and refreshing tomato and avocado tartare, served with a poached egg and a dribble of pesto sauce. Crab-cake purists may object to the bit of binder in Le Relais' version, but even the fussiest will acknowledge that these cakes are satisfyingly lumpy. Crab-cake minimalists will applaud Le Relais' restraint with seasoning, but others will crave a dash of Worcestershire sauce, a hint of mustard, maybe a caper or two. The tuna carpaccio, on the other hand, could use fewer capers -- the paper-thin slices of tuna are fresh, but they're buried under so many extraneous ingredients it's hard to locate their flavor.
Okay, here's the French part: The foie gras is a gem. Delicate, unadorned except for a touch of vinaigrette and a strip of prosciutto, it's wonderfully mild and clean-tasting -- if foie gras can be called "light," this is. The escargots? Let's face it, escargots have always been a great excuse to eat lots of butter and garlic, and that hasn't changed at Le Relais. While those snails may be elicit a "ho-hum," the red pepper soup should bring a "wow" to your lips. It's like a lobster bisque minus the sherry, and with the zip of roasted sweet red peppers to mitigate the richness. The chilled tomato soup is wimpy by comparison.
When it comes to entrees, pay special attention to anything layered. Le Relais serves lamb charlotte that's silken dynamite: chunks of juicy, pink meat alternating with supple slices of eggplant, the whole thing infused with garlic and rosemary. It's a tender little tower on the plate. In the dish called "layers of swordfish," dabs of lovely ratatouille are stacked between several quarter-inch-thick fillets, set atop swirls of basil pesto and red pepper coulis. This dish speaks volumes about lightness and balance. By comparison, the other fish dishes, such as the fennel-crusted tuna steak and the salmon fillet, have been pleasant but not memorable.
The magret of duck offers more of that remarkable balance, with tender meat resting on just a smidge of unobtrusive port wine sauce. The expected sweetness comes not from the sauce but from the accompanying braised figs, a marvelous foil for the duck -- they play together like prosciutto and melon. The beef tenderloin medallions aren't as interesting, but the meat is top-quality and the accompanying ratatouille la-sagna (now there's an international union!) lifts it out of the meat-and-potatoes category. In the striking hazelnut-breaded veal scallop, the delicate meat is enhanced by olives, sauteed potatoes, lemon, asparagus, anchovy and chopped egg. Wiener schnitzel was never this classy, or this good.
At the other end of the spectrum, the dish called "slow roasted veal shank" is like a lobotomized osso buco, the kind of unseasoned, unsauced meat that used to be called "wholesome." It's to snore for, as is the roast chicken, which pleads for garlic, herbs and maybe a nice pile of mashed potatoes. The sirloin steak, too, is forgettable.
Vegetarians are well treated here. The penne with artichokes, generously studded with shiitake and porcini mushrooms, is like pasta primavera with punch, its deftly done vegetables boosted by the concentrated flavors of sun-dried tomatoes and olives. The orange zucchini custard is a cloud of a dish, served beautifully in a swirl of sweet red pepper and basil pesto.
If you hate making decisions, that enormous wine list could provoke a full-blown anxiety attack. Here are a few recommendations to help get you started, all of them at the lower end of the price list. The 1994 Quatro pinot noir ($31) is full-bodied and exceptionally complex; the 1998 Chateau Thieuley sauvignon blanc ($27) is clean-tasting and slightly citrusy; and the 1997 Deiss pinot blanc ($35) is fruity and slightly sweet, yet crisp.
When it comes to dessert -- and it should -- we've found the chocolate creations a bit anemic. But the satiny, pleasingly puckery lemon tart is delightful, as is the rich, creamy nougat glace, packed with hazelnuts and pistachios. For something lighter, consider the raspberry vacherin, which combines a frozen meringue with raspberry sorbet. Sensible folks will find it refreshing; those who believe that dining out should be an occasion for sybaritic indulgence will judge it lacking in calories. ("It's just not dessert," complained one of our tablemates.) In any case, note that the vacherin is served too cold -- treat it like a red wine and let it breathe for a while before you dig in.
There is no sense in trying to categorize Le Relais. If someone asked us what kind of restaurant it is, we'd just say it's a good one.
Mark and Gail Barnett are freelance restaurant critics. Phyllis C. Richman is on assignment.