The good news is that a moderately priced Gallic eatery has established itself along the restaurant-laced Wisconsin Avenue. Le Caprice -- which translates into "the whim" or "the fancy" -- is a usually capable, relatively imaginative restaurant that is true to its name much of the time, especially where presentation is concerned.
This would not be your first choice for a romantic dining experience. The ground-floor main dining room is small and somewhat crowded, with a few antique-looking fixtures -- gilt-framed paintings and interesting light fixtures -- adding to its salon aura. The upstairs dining room appears half-decorated, as if the owners hadn't expected to seat diners there but felt obliged to use the space. To the credit of the staff, however, service there has been expedient, even on busy weekend nights, despite its distance from the ground-floor kitchen.
Food is thus more the focus. Almost without exception, plates are attractively garnished with inviting arrangements. Paper-thin lime slices might surround a pastry of fresh-tasting mussels and oysters. Carefully arranged crudite's encircle an otherwise indifferent and heavy crusted pate' of veal and pork. Sauces are presented in silver servers. Should you order a single glass of wine, the bottle is first brought for your inspection, then poured. Desserts -- pretty designs that are sometimes worth eating -- might be set on pools of cream sauce, decorated with squiggles of chocolate icing, and garnished with fruit.
Much of the time, such attractiveness carries over to the taste of the food itself. A terrine of veal sweetbreads and prunes, surrounded by a medley of colorful diced vegetables, was mild and pleasant. A main course of duck, thinly sliced and fanned on the plate, was accompanied by fine roasted potatoes, miniature pickled pears and a tiny zucchini boat, stuffed with a delicious chicken mousse. A thoughtful addition.
Furthermore, Le Caprice eschews the more ubiquitous French fare in favor of some rather novel dishes. Instead of French onion soup, you are offered a choice between a creamy smooth cauliflower-shrimp-scallop soup, or a Provencal-style fish soup, robust and tomato-rich, served with the traditional garlic-infused rouille sauce, wafery croutons and grated parmesan. A first course of seafood became sophisticated by teaming oysters and mussels in a homey pastry shell and offering a creamy sharp celery sauce to accompany it.
Rounding out the list of appetizers are an ordinary salad of red-tipped lettuce with bacon vinaigrette, snails in mushroom caps, a chilled mousse of duck and a plate of assorted smoked fish and seafood.
Entrees are limited to nine selections plus a few daily specials, and cover a range of tastes, from simple and light fish dishes to downright hearty comestibles, such as an Alsatian mixed grill of smoked sausage, pork loin, confit of duck and boudin blanc, or white sausage, on a heap of sauerkraut. Liver, velvety smooth, is well prepared, blanketed with a heady sherry vinegar sauce and served with batons of potato and simply cooked thin green beans.
Perhaps one of Le Caprice's most intriguing dishes is the French version of the homey chicken pot pie, a pastry-covered entree featuring a succulent chicken breast simmering in a delectably haunting morel mushroom cream sauce.
I was less enamored with the lamb kebab, skewered with peppers and onions, set atop a raisiny bed of couscous and served with two sauces. The meat was flavorful, though a bit too chewy and dry for my taste.
For the most part, service at Le Caprice is willing and hospitable -- if a waiter can't answer your questions, at least he's willing to ask the chef. There are occasional lapses -- bread might not arrive until you are halfway through your appetizer, for instance, and you might feel a bit rushed when the waiter inquires about dessert while you've still a good portion of dinner on your plate.
Desserts, in fact, often look more inviting than they taste, but if you'd like to end a meal on a sweet note, you might opt for the pear and white chocolate sorbet, laced with pear liqueur; as the confection melts on the tongue, one tastes first the chocolate, followed by the subtle rush of fruit puree.
Since Washington can never hope for too many affordable French bistros, we might tend to overlook this newcomer's missteps and focus on what it does well. And in all, Le Caprice does a commendable job of filling a gap in the capital's restaurant scene.