1220 19th St. NW
Hours: Continental breakfast 7:30 to 10:30 a.m., lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner 5:30 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Prices: Lunch appetizers $2.25 to $5.25, entrees $5.75 to $12.50; dinner appetizers $4.25 to $8.25, entrees $10.50 to $16
Cards: American Express, Choice, MasterCard, Visa
You can't escape bread at Epi d'Or. The shelves of the pastry case are loaded with it, and the massive buffet near the entrance is graced with it, in the form of big, shiny loaves in charming animal shapes. Bread serves not only as nourishment but also as decoration: The table vases, for instance, sprout not daisies or carnations, but beards of dried wheat.
So it should come as no surprise to learn that Epi d'Or, which in an earlier life housed The Bread Oven, is run by the same team that brought us the Georgetown bakery known as Au Croissant Chaud.
Clearly, the staff of life is the stuff to like here.
And the rest of the menu? Well, let's just say that much of it has all the appeal of a day-old loaf of bread.
In fairness, there have been moments -- albeit fleeting moments -- of delight at Epi d'Or. I anticipated following up on the menu after an initial dinner of lamb provencal finished off with a fine, light and fresh tarte tatin, shortly after the restaurant opened in midsummer.
Moreover, this is an attractive and cozy dining room, with expansive front windows that allow for lots of sunlight, and ceilings so high as to almost disappear. The accents are simple, suggestive of a simple country look. While service varies depending upon the time of day you visit -- the place is generally mobbed at lunch, and as hushed as a mausoleum at dinner -- the staff has proved engaging and helpful.
The menu nods in the direction of Italy, although most of the offerings are French, with an emphasis on fish and seafood dishes. Unfortunately, there are land mines to be found within each category: Among the starters, the fettuccine alfredo was actually worse than any boil-a-bag dinner I've encountered. No more than al dente noodles in a thin milk bath, it begged for seasoning. The duck pate was likewise wan in flavor, as grainily textured as sandpaper, with spinach leaf garnishes that looked as if they had been picked from a pile of mulch. Even less appealing was a special of stuffed squid, tough, rubbery and not much helped by its accompanying lobster sauce.
One of the kitchen's more successful attempts was the baked clams. The plump and meaty morsels came lightly dusted with bread crumbs, napped with a delicate and creamy sauce redolent of thyme.
Things don't necessarily improve with the main courses. Of the lighter offerings, the vegetable crepe was a good idea gone soupy, with ingredients such as crisp, fresh green beans and cubes of eggplant and tomato having relinquished their juices into the dish. And while the buerre blanc served with a plate of scallops was fine, the scallops were cooked to the point of rubberiness. It's hard to ruin a decent piece of meat -- maybe that's why I have better memories of the satisfactory filet mignon.
Savory cubes of roasted potato and fine ratatouille -- the two standard accompaniments at Epi d'Or -- are a steep price to pay for such mediocre dishes as a special of mahi-mahi, ringed by sliced peaches and drizzled with an undistinguished fruit sauce, and a dry tuna escovitch, topped with a surprisingly lackluster blanket of chopped tomato, capers and onions. The latter's plate was bordered with, of all things, squiggles of red and yellow icing the night I ordered it. As the waiter set the plate down, he lauded the chef's bit of whimsy, which was more suited to a dessert than an entree in my mind. Given the icing's sweetness and its Technicolors, I found it jarring rather than appealing.
Visually, Epi d'Or's rendition of the dessert known as floating island is an inventive one. Here, it is two clouds of meringue resting in a vanilla-scented pool of custard, all of which is set in a bowl fashioned entirely from bitter chocolate. There are cakes and sundry confections to select from the pastry case, and the best have been the rich and thick-crusted fruit tarts.
Lunch and dinner had been disappointments. Perhaps breakfast would see Epi d'Or shine, I thought.
I was wrong. Oh, the coffee was rich and freshly brewed, and the croissants were good buttery ones (the caramel rolls, on the other hand, were dry and not very sweet). But unlike lunch and dinner, there were no waiters on hand, so we were left to field our every request with a lackadaisical clerk behind the bread counter. He made little effort to assist us, and worse, left us sitting in the middle of a circle of dirty tables. In all, it was not my idea of a great way to start the morning.
Man may not live by bread alone. But at Epi d'Or, the alternatives aren't very promising.
Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.