- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Moving from one side of town to the other, the owners of Montmartre on Capitol Hill have opened a second French bistro, this one called Montsouris, at Dupont Circle.

Montsouris is the name of a pretty park on the Left Bank of Paris and a delightful name for a bistro anywhere. The new restaurant occupies the space on P Street that once was Johnny’s Half Shell, now moved to the foot of the Hill.

Montsouris has the marks of a genuine French bistro: a long banquette against the wall, butcher paper on the tables, regional French wines and a typical bistro menu. Unfortunately, the cooking is not quite as good as it could be, especially considering prices that should be enough to pay for cloth napkins and real butcher paper rather than the stuff of paper towels.

Warm baguette slices and foil-wrapped butter are promising. So is the selection of wines, primarily French. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming. Veronique Onteniente, hostess and one of the owners, is charming and accommodating; the French waiter is pleasant and eager to please. Francophiles for the evening, we were ready for a touch of Paris.

The menu promises classic bistro fare: oysters, pate de campagne, mussels; curly chicory salad with chicken gizzards and a quail egg; and steaks and sausages with a green lentil stew. Fish dishes and meat selections complete the menu.

Alas, what came to the table disappointed. An appetizer du jour was described by the waiter as puff pastry with shrimp and scallops. What he served was a triangle of greasy pastry containing a mix of chopped scallops and shrimp. It had all the earmarks of a dish prepared early in the day and reheated for an early-evening customer.

The filling was good enough, and had the pastry been freshly prepared, it would have been a fine dish. The accompanying salad of arugula, spinach and herbs was fresh and good and would have been better with a little dressing.

Baby spinach salad with slices of a delicious roasted pear, a sprinkling of blue cheese and toasted pecans would have profited from a little more dressing, too.

Excessive fat damages main courses. The Dijon potato gratin that accompanies many meat entrees is greasy and tastes reheated. Thin french fries are a much better option; they come to the table hot and freshly made with just the right sprinkling of salt.

Rib-eye steaks are paired with a bearnaise sauce, with a red butter sauce, or with plain maitre d’hotel garnish (herb butter). The steaks are thin but tender and cooked just as ordered. Beef tenderloin is served with a black pepper sauce.

A pork chop with a side of potato gratin is nicely cooked although on the tough side and prettily presented with a sprinkle of bright green parsley. It’s a good home-style preparation.

Several fish dishes are options for those not in the mood for meat: sauteed cod with tomatoes, asparagus and olives in a saffron sauce; grilled salmon with green lentils; grilled tuna with baby fennel; and pan-seared sea scallops with a carrot emulsion.

Montsouris, just steps away from Dupont Circle, is a popular lunch place. Everything seems fresher and tastier at lunch. Most of the dinner items are on the lunch menu at slightly reduced prices.

The lunch menu also offers a seafood salad and a duck salad, the latter a full meal. A large plate of mixed greens in a fine, tart mustard vinaigrette is topped with pieces of duck confit and surrounded by halves of fingerling potatoes alternating with apple slices. The potatoes and apple slices are sprinkled with coarse sea salt, which gives a surprising taste and crunch to the apples. The duck is slightly greasy but nicely crisp, and the various elements of the salad — cold greens and warm duck, potatoes and apples — complement one another well.

Mussels in a traditional poulette sauce are first-rate. The mussels are small, plump and cooked just long enough to retain their tenderness and not begin to shrivel. The delectable sauce is a classic combination of white wine, cream and chives. It’s delicious on its own or sopped up with French bread. The fries go well with this dish.

Desserts are typical French finales: a Mont Blanc (pureed chestnuts with whipped cream); peach Melba; pear belle-Helene; vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce; rice pudding with caramel sauce; and creme brulee.

A dish of custard perfumed with pistachio is very good — creamy and delicate. The tarte tatin consisted of apples on soggy pastry. The tart had none of the buttery caramel and crisp pastry that a true tarte tatin requires.

Taking just a little more care in what comes out of the kitchen would improve things enormously (and having an open kitchen means the kitchen police should not start their cleaning duties while late diners are still arriving to join lingering guests). Aesthetics are important to dining pleasure, and the sight and odor of cleaning detergent is not pleasant. There’s potential here, and Montsouris could become a charming neighborhood bistro — just what the neighborhood needs.

RESTAURANT: Montsouris, 2002 P St. NW; 202/833-4180

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday ; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Appetizers $6 to $11 (lunch), $6 to $15 (dinner); main courses $16 to $22 (lunch), $17 to $23.50 (dinner); desserts $7.

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking

ACCESS: Three steps from street into restaurant

METRO: Dupont Circle (Red Line)

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