You can dine well and dine cheaply in Washington, but rarely in the same place. If the capital wants for anything, it's more moderately priced restaurants.
Thus one of last year's welcome arrivals -- an early Christmas wish fulfilled -- was that of Christian's Cafe Francais, downtown's bistro offshoot of the more formal Val de Loire.
Christian's offers just what you'd wish from a restaurant in the business district: gracious, usually swift, service, a varied and attractive menu that doesn't raise its prices after lunch, a dining room that's neither glitzy nor institutional, but cozily upscale. And I'd be hard-pressed to name a more attractive downtown bargain than the one Christian's offers: a 3-course meal plus coffee plus a glass of wine for $8.95 available at lunch and dinner.
One day that special was a choice between two appetizers, a dinner of boneless duck, and a dessert of apple tart. The duck was a moist, full-flavored breast, just the least bit fatty, served with a piquant peppercorn sauce and accompanied by delicately cooked snow peas and little browned cubes of potato. On another occasion there was cream of corn soup to start, an earthy rich slice of liver glazed with a zesty orange sauce as a main course, and fresh fruit mousse to finish.
It would be enough to offer fine food at modest prices, but Christian's exudes a neighborly charm as well. The experience makes you want to come back. There was soothing French music to lull us through expresso, and a small buffet table showcasing fresh desserts, perhaps some recent wine arrivals, or both. The hostess takes care to bid each patron a warm adieu. Already this restaurant is competing for your loyalty.
If I had any complaint, it would be with the spacing of the tables, which seem claustrophobically close to one another, a problem that's especially noticeable at peak lunch hours. Otherwise, the narrow front dining room is stylishly bare, expanded by mirrored walls, made attractive with greenery and muted tones, softened with gentle lighting.
The regular daily menu offers more than a dozen soups, salads and hot or cold appetizers, and I'd steer you in as many directions, for most have proven quite good.
Soups, served in large, deep bowls, can be wonderful. The special of cream of corn soup looked thin, but tasted luxuriously creamy, with flecks of finely ground corn bits adding texture to richness. Similarly, the celery soup was a fine, soothing broth. Only the french onion soup ("like in Paris," promised the menu) fell short of expectations, for this was a timid version without much onion flavor.
The house salad features chicory -- not iceberg -- along with endive and sliced red tomatoes in a creamy vinaigrette. On a second visit it was a pleasant surprise to see again such deep red tomatoes this time in the tomato-basil salad. The pasta in the three-colored noodle dish is homemade, like most everything at Christian's (save for the bread), and it tastes like it.
Main courses follow suit, and fish is particularly good. An entree of tuna was three cuts of broiled fish sauced with a zippy, coarse-grained mustard glaze. Even better was trout fillet served with a delicious beige cream sauce, flecked with parsley and accompanied by boiled potatoes and long green beans with lots of snap and garden flavor.
Of the meat dishes, the succulent beef medallions were three thick ovals topped with a sauce of shallots, a mating that accented the delicate flavor of the meat. And the rich flavor of lamb steak was paired similarly with a rich brown cream sauce redolent of fresh tarragon. Indeed sauces, while not as refined as you might find in a pricier setting, are nice accents at Christian's.
Desserts are more variable, but might include a refreshing fruit tart, a smooth, rich flavored two-chocolate mousse, or an enormous wedge of cheesecake. A chestnut cake sampled recently was heavy and rough textured, pleasantly nutty in flavor but a bit dry, though the pool of vanilla sauce it rested on proved a welcome moistener.
Christian's Cafe Francais is a restaurant anxious to please. The effort shows in the attention to detail and quality. Moreover, this little attraction is proof that French food needn't be relegated to expense account diners.