CAFE LOMBARDY -- HOTEL LOMBARDY, 2019 I ST. NW. 202-857-3912. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner daily 5:30 to 10 p.m.; for breakfast Monday through Friday 7 to 10:30 a.m., Saturday and Sunday 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: lunch appetizers $5 to $9, entrees $9 to $18; dinner appetizers $4 to $11, entrees $12 to $23. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $30 to $50 per person.
Surely you've read a novel with just such a dining room as Cafe Lombardy. It's the place where the hero and heroine break up, or make up and then return every year for their anniversary. They sit by the casement windows, and when he dashes off to catch a plane, she cranks open the window for a last chance to call goodbye, then sits and lets the breeze catch her hair and her thoughts before the fadeout.
Cafe Lombardy sits just inside a hotel with a tiny lobby that looks far more European than Washingto-nian. The dining room feels like a cocoon, a place set apart, with parquet flooring and woodwork that evokes the Renaissance, maybe in Venice, or at least a set dresser's version of it. And whatever the drama, the host plays a strong supporting role. At dinner, he's a man with an exotic and perfectly groomed beard, acting more like your private butler than a restaurant server. With a clipped style and a proprietary air, he encourages you to order the signature dishes and directs you to the wine that strikes him right. At lunch, the host is a different kind of charmer, chummy and witty, treating even first-timers like old friends.
Lunch is more jovial and bustling, dinner is more sedate -- the napkins are folded to look like tuxedo jackets. The menus are similar, and the prices hardly change. But dinner is prepared by a better chef.
Not that you'd go there primarily for the food. Cafe Lombardy is a modest place, just a little restaurant that's nice to know about. It's a welcoming place.
Before the entree, a tray of breads is presented, as big as a table, with four or five choices. They're more about quantity than quality, but a generous touch. The menu lists fewer than 10 entrees, but two of them are vegetarian, as are three of the appetizers and most of the salads. Even the meat and fish dishes share their stage with substantial vegetables. The wine list is small, and though the choices are predictable, it's comforting to find that only a third of the wines are more than $35, and most are available by the glass.
The evening host likes the smoked-trout crostini. I do, too; although I'd prefer them with gutsier bread, they're elevated by a sturdy rub of garlic and fresh thyme. Still, it's not the appetizer I'd choose. The menu itself gives the important hint: This kitchen respects vegetables. Thus the asparagus is sauteed until exactly tender-crisp, its olive oil blended with the cleansing taste of lemon and a crunch of chopped pistachios. It's just what an appetizer should be. Swiss chard sauteed with garlic, dried cherries and pine nuts is not such a star, more a side dish. Salads are dressed up with grilled artichokes and olives or baby beets and Parmesan, or turned into entrees with chicken or shrimp.
The more glamorous and protein-rich appetizers -- fine prosciutto with a dollop of grilled vinegared mushrooms and Parmesan, or shrimp fried in the lightest veil of seasoned crumbs and decorated with oranges, avocados and an unnecessary honey-mustard barbecue sauce -- are attractive bargains. But the most astonishing value is a $7 still life of smoked salmon, three cylinders of this top-quality fish enclosing mascarpone and lumpfish caviar, garnished with greenery sprinkled with chopped olives and capers. The salmon and cream are luscious together, all silk and velvet. It's a surprise thereafter to find that the wild rice soup tastes like barely more than water and rice.
If the appetizers are mostly better than you might anticipate, the entrees tend to be less so. Shrimp, though juicy and enticing as an appetizer, as an entree is plastered with heavy alfredo sauce smothering a bowl of soft, flabby linguine. Remove the cream sauce, cook the shrimp and the pasta a little less and treat the tasteless linguine to the seasoning lavished on the shrimp, and this could be a good dish. Salmon, coated with sesame seeds and perched on a bed of caraway-spiked braised savoy cabbage, is equally sensitive to the kitchen's missteps: At lunch, the fish is overcooked and underseasoned, and sprinkling salt and pepper on the sesame coating at the table doesn't work. At dinner, the salmon is cut thicker, thus less prone to overcooking. It's seasoned underneath its coating, bursting with aromatic juices. What's more, the savoy cabbage tastes less raw and more flavorful at dinner, though at neither meal is the watery, bright red pepper sauce an enhancement. Trout may be overcooked even at dinner, but its cornmeal crust and topping of tomatoes, garlic and capers in white wine deliver a compensating crunch and tang.
Entrees here are far from beautiful. Rack of lamb is caught in a morass of thick parsnip pancakes and peas turned gray in their stew of escarole, onions, mint and balsamic reduction. Cornish hen is buried in a mush of potato wedges and those same once-green peas with soft cloves of garlic, green peppercorns and flecks of herbs. The potatoes absorb the seasonings, though, and it all tastes better than it looks.
Except for an unnerving fascination with balsamic vinegar, the dinner chef has a reliable sense of flavor. If he left out that hit of vinegar, the wild mushrooms with seared polenta and wilted chard would be a low-on-the-food-chain feast. In fact, many of the entrees would seem more with one less ingredient.
Among desserts, the fancy cakes are bought elsewhere, and have imported their institutional character. Pumpkin cheesecake is made in-house, though, and has a home-style, not-too-sweet creaminess. Creme brulee is equally rich and smooth under its veneer of sugar. Oddly, the dessert that most evokes a family kitchen -- blackberry peach cobbler -- tastes too far from home. Is that freezer burn that turned the peaches to leather and the crust to goo?
I'll try the cobbler again in summer, when its fruits are in season. Then, too, I'll be able to crank open the cafe's windows and feel the breeze as the sun streams in to dapple the tablecloths. And dream of happily-ever-afters.
Now that we're used to having good bread in this town, we're beginning to expect good bread-based foods, too. Some former employees of La Madeleine have opened Cafe Midi Cuisine, at 1635 Connecticut Ave. NW. It's a bakery and carryout with a salad bar (couscous, pasta, bean and vegetable salads) and a hot station serving soups and -- that local trend -- dough specialties, such as cone-shaped pizzette filled with spinach, feta, roasted peppers, onion marmalade and the like. Croque monsieurs and potato-and-zucchini galettes sizzle away on the grill. What to try? Certainly the thin, crisp-edged onion-Gorgonzola-bacon tart, but probably not the gummy, thick potato-topped focaccia. You can take your lunch upstairs to eat it in the cafe or carry it out with one of three kinds of baguettes. At dinner, the menu expands to rotisserie chicken and lasagna; breakfast displays an array of muffins and croissants. -- P.C.R.