- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2007

Cafe du Parc. It sounds French; it suggests cool, green, leafy surroundings; the name implies light, savory meals. Cafe du Parc, the new informal restaurant in the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, is all of these.

The cafe is on two levels: the lower level has a few small cafe tables, a bar and a display of pastries such as croissants, muffins and brioches, and a door to the patio on the wide Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk. Tables are set beneath the trees facing Pershing Square, which has become another oasis in Washington.

The dining room is on the upper level. As you walk up the staircase, which divides the dining area into two sections, you see the young chefs hard at work in the open kitchen. Alsatian chef Antoine Westermann was brought in to supervise the menu and the kitchen, now in the hands of chef Christophe Marque.

Windows on three sides make the room light and airy. Decor is minimal with blue accents. It is a cafe, after all. Outstanding at several recent meals, lunch and dinner, is the service.

What the waiters bring to the table is very French and very good. It’s neither haute cuisine nor experimental cuisine nouvelle, but excellent bourgeois dishes typical of brasserie fare, some with a contemporary accent.

A starter of three small sardines, grilled with garlic and parsley, was delicious. Served with a thin garlic mayonnaise — not a real aioli, although the menu calls it that — the little fishes didn’t need a sauce. Perfect, as is.

An assiette de petits plats, or plates with small servings, makes an amusing presentation of three sparrow-sized dishes: a tiny dish of somewhat bland celery remoulade; an eggshell filled with equally bland chopped egg bound with mayonnaise; and a small pot of two lettuce leaves and thin sticks of carrot, celery and cucumber with a mix of tapenade and anchovy sauce for dipping. A tiny toast with sun-dried tomato topping accompanies each. The three plates are pretty, but hardly resemble the menu description and were no more than an amuse bouche. Not exactly worth the $10.

The salade du Parc, on the other hand, was copious and delicious, a fine melange of frisee lettuce, bacon, blue cheese, crisp and flavorful croutons and a poached egg on top. The dressing is a subtle sherry vinaigrette. Priced at $8, the salad is a perfect beginning to a summer meal.

Other appetizers include beef tartare, a plate of mixed sausage and other pork products, steamed mussels, a soup of the day, tomato and mozzarella salad, and Mr. Westermann’s pate of veal, pork and duck cooked with port and Armagnac and wrapped in pastry.

Main courses, both fish and meat, are prepared with care. A splendid main course is a square of breast of pork, which has been cooked in a slow 24-hour “sous vide,” or vacuum, then sauteed so the outside is crisp. The meat is meltingly tender and the flavor delicate. It’s a marvelous dish, served in a simple garlic jus.

Chicken breast is roasted with a mustard and bread crumb coat, a tart, spicy combination.

The chef has a touch with subtle dishes as well as spicy ones. Fresh and flaky filet of codfish, served room temperature, is topped with pine nuts and an elegant chopped tomato and basil sauce.

The new summer menu includes roasted monkfish wrapped in prosciutto; sauteed shrimp accompanied by eggplant caviar; and a grilled rib eye steak with a bearnaise sauce.

The side dishes are not to be missed. Each diner chooses a side for the entree. The vegetables and potatoes are served in small cast-iron casseroles, and each we tried was delicious: buttery carrots with parsley; slim French beans in a shallot and chicken broth sauce; excellent french fries; fresh green peas. Other sides are a piperade of bell peppers, onion and garlic; buttered noodles; and whipped potatoes. The same arrangement of a side dish of choice with each main course is available at lunch.

The lunch menu has a plat du jour for each day of the week, ranging from a whole roasted chicken on Mondays, to short ribs on Wednesday or lamb for Sunday. There are no sandwiches.

For dinner, regional specialties are prepared, such as sauteed skate with capers and butter; veal breast a la nicoise with spinach and tomato confit; provencale tomatoes filled with vegetables, goat cheese and toasted hazelnuts; and vegetables sauteed in olive oil.

Desserts are not neglected. The scrumptious tart lemon tart has an elegant cookie-dough base topped with lemon curd, which in turn is adorned with a little Italian meringue. Little cream puffs filled with vanilla ice cream and served with a small pitcher of warm chocolate sauce are a good choice, although the profiteroles are not always quite fresh. Chocolate mousse with fresh raspberries is another winner.

Cafe du Parc has a French wine list with a good selection of wines by the glass; nothing from California or even Virginia. It’s not exactly Paris, but the restaurant retains a genuine French quality without being pretentious or stuffy. It’s a straightforward cafe that serves what the French call “une cuisine soignee.” We translate that as very fine food.

RESTAURANT: Cafe du Parc, 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202/942-7000

HOURS: Lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Starters $6 to $13; main courses $17 to $24; desserts $6 and $7

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Validated complimentary parking in the Willard Hotel garage; some street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Metro Center (Red, Orange and Blue lines)

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