Atmosphere: Charming French country cafe. Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight every day. Price Range: Dinner, $7.75 to $10.75; quiche and sandwiches, $3.85 to $4.95. Reservations: Not necessary. Credit cards: American Express, Carte Blanche, VISA, MasterCard. Special facilities: Accessible to the handicapped; street parking only; no boosters or high chairs.
For a little bit of French country cafe atmosphere in the heart of the city, it is hard to beat La Sorbonne's appearance. Situated just above Washington Circle on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, La Sorbonne's exterior sports a handsome, dark blue awning and a stylish brick and wood facade that is inviting.
The interior is even more pleasant. The chilly night we arrived, a welcoming fire burned in the fireplace to the left of the door. Small candles flickering against brick walls added to the coziness. Small tables covered with white tablecloths and graced with fresh flowers were surrounded by attractive bentwood chairs.
Several large pastel Impressionist-style paintings hung on a brick wall, and the delicate greenery of potted plants added to an ambiance that is pretty but not formal. We settled down to relax and enjoy.
That's the good news. The bad news is that La Sorbonne doesn't always taste as good as it looks. You can get better food at many another D.C French-style bistro.
The menu, in true cafe style, is not lengthy. It offers three soups, a few standard appetizers, quiche, sandwiches and veal, chicken and seafood dinners. Among the sandwiches offered are ham and cheese or pate on French bread, croque monsieur and croque madame -- elegant names for what are essentially grilled ham and cheese and grilled turkey and cheese.
Most of the dinners are offered in some variation of cream sauce, with vegetables of the day -- a potato, carrot and bean melange, in our case. The night we were there, the dinner specials included lotte, a fish used plentifully in France, but seen less often here. The bread-brought to the table was good fresh french bread and the salads were fine. We wondered why there weren't more people in the place since everything seemed promising; we ordered with expectation.
Our 13-year-old daughter requested quiche Lorraine, $4.95, a basic quiche with bacon added to its cream and cheese filling, and one of her favorites. One of our other daughters was happy with the idea of a croque monsieur, $3.85, but her sister was not in the mood for ham and cheese in any form. There were no hamburgers anywhere in sight, and all seemed lost. Finally she settled on a roast chicken dinner, $7.75.
My husband and I were content to try veal au madere, $8.95, and scallops au pernod, $8.95. As it turned out, the disgruntled among us fared best. The chicken, roasted with lemon and herbs, turned out to be the best dish we tried. It was tender and tasty, and our dissatisfied dinner companion wound up happy after all.
Her sister also was pleased with her croque monsieur, although it is stretching it a bit to call her sandwich by that name. A good croque monsieur is dipped in beaten egg before being toasted, and grated cheese is melted and browned on top.
This one had not been grilled at all. Shredded cheese had been lightly melted on top of a plain ham sandwich made of spongy white bread. Nevertheless, our daughter thought it was fine. The quiche, too, left a great deal to be desired, since it had more bacon fat than bacon.
As for the other dinner we sampled, the veal was not very tender, probably because it had not been sauteed properly. The tiny sea scallops were fine. Both were served in a basic cream sauce seasoned with spirits; the Pernod and Madeira added welcome flavor and were not overwhelming. However, the sauce was too thin and would have benefited from the addition of an egg yolk.
For dessert we split two strawberry tarts ($1.95 each) of mediocre quality. Service was good at Sorbonne, and the place was lovely and cozy, but prices are far too high for the quality of the fare.