- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 21, 2007

Cafe du Parc

1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

202/942-7000

French

Cafe du Parc is the new informal restaurant in the Willard Intercontinental Hotel. The food is neither haute cuisine nor experimental cuisine nouvelle, but excellent bourgeois dishes typical of brasserie fare, some with a contemporary accent.

Appetizers include three small sardines, grilled with garlic and parsley, beef tartare, steamed mussels and pate of veal, pork and duck wrapped in pastry.

A splendid main course is a meltingly tender square of breast of pork. Chicken breast is roasted with a mustard and bread crumb coating. The lunch menu has a plat du jour, ranging from a whole roasted chicken on Mondays to short ribs on Wednesday or lamb for Sunday lunch. For dinner, regional specialties such as sauteed skate with capers and butter and tomatoes filled with vegetables, goat cheese and toasted hazelnuts are prepared.

It’s not exactly Paris, but the restaurant retains a genuine French quality without being pretentious or stuffy.

Corinna Lothar

Palena

3529 Connecticut Ave. NW

202/537-9250

Modern Italian

Pastry chef Ann Amernick and executive chef Frank Ruta continue to serve their high-quality, innovative, modern Italian fare at their Cleveland Park restaurant, Palena, which is really two restaurants in one.

The back dining room is fancy and features fixed-price menus. The front dining room, Palena Cafe, offers cheaper, a la carte fare.

One thing is consistent, though: Whether it’s double-chocolate napoleons or braised lamb shoulders, Palena’s offerings are always well-prepared and nicely presented.

Among favorites on the fixed-price menu: The lime-and-cumin-marinated ceviche of wild Alaskan salmon with Sicilian orange, horseradish and peppery greens; and the pan-roasted loin and braised shoulder of lamb with spring vegetables.

Let’s not forget about the classy desserts. The double-chocolate napoleon, which combines flaky (puff pastry) and smooth (ganache) perfectly, is a melt-in-your-mouth masterpiece; the cheesecake (goat cheese and cream cheese) with Amareno cherries in port wine is another delectable treat.

The service is prompt and proper. The ambience is quiet and elegant. From the loud speakers flow only Italian fare from Vivaldi to Puccini. A meal at Palena is fine in the best sense of the word: quiet, innovative and high-quality.

Gabriella Boston

Brasserie Beck

1101 K St. NW

202/408-1717

French-Belgian

A lot of good things are going on at Robert Wiedmaier’s new restaurant, Brasserie Beck. Terrific baguettes are baked on premises and served with sweet whipped butter. Salads are excellent. First courses include a wonderful pea soup with veal cheek meatballs, fine quiche Lorraine, delicious crusty shrimp croquettes; house-made pate.

Fork-tender roast pork tenderloin was superb. Grilled sirloin in a peppercorn and cognac sauce at $24 the most expensive entree was cooked as ordered. Coq au vin was served in a thick, unattractive brown onion sauce. Mussels — the high point of a Belgian restaurant meal — were oversized and mealy. Beck’s Belgian main courses include beef carbonnade, chicken waterzooi, and sauerkraut with sausages baked in pastry.

Beck tends to be super noisy, but its prices are unusually reasonable for food and wine. Its list of Belgian beers is extraordinary.

Corinna Lothar

Kentmorr Restaurant and Crab House

910 Kentmorr Road, Stevensville, Md.

410/643-2263

Seafood

The area’s crab houses are wonderful meeting places for family and friends. One such is the Kentmorr Restaurant and Crab House in Stevensville, Md., a small Queen Anne’s County community about five miles south of the Bay Bridge.

Its sunset views of the Chesapeake Bay and Annapolis are backed up by a menu that offers something for everyone.

Cream of crab ($6.99) follows the traditional recipe, smooth and creamy, with a generous portion of crab. The half and half ($5.99) is an interesting twist: It is literally cream of crab soup ladled into a dish of vegetable crab soup.

The broiled crab cake sandwich ($13.99) was served on a soft potato roll and accompanied by coleslaw and a pickle. The cake was bursting with crabmeat (very little binder) and was melt-in-the-mouth good.

The soft-shell crab sandwich ($16.99) sported two nice-size crabs on potato bread. The crabs were sweet and plump and expertly prepared — crisp on the outside but still moist on the inside.

Steamed crabs available this evening were brought in from Texas. Large males were priced at $48 per dozen, medium males at $36 per dozen.

The crabs were heavy, and the meat was sweet. The J.O. seasoning made them finger-licking good.

Scott Haring

Occidental

1475 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

202/783-1475

Contemporary American

The Occidental is celebrating its 100th birthday. Closed last year for a six-month renovation, the restaurant is back and may be better than ever. The photographs of Washington luminaries are back in place, covering the walls with the faces of presidents, judges, writers, soldiers, politicians, journalists, athletes and artists, and in the new state-of-the-art kitchen, executive chef Rodney Scruggs makes the Occidental once again the place “where statesmen dine” with pleasure.

Appetizers are substantial and excellent. A starter of spring risotto with English peas topped with two grilled shrimp was perfect. Veal tenderloin is superb: three small rounds of tender meat, each about an inch thick, are served warm with a cool salad of mixed mushrooms, shaved celery root and tiny roasted onions. A mound of tuna tartare, mixed with diced cucumbers and sprinkled with sesame seeds in a subtle rice wine dressing, is fresh and delicious.

An entree of grilled sirloin of Wagyu-style beef, tender and flavorful, arrives sliced on a creamy, delicate puree of sunchokes and braised Swiss chard with a rich reduction of red wine and shallots.

Desserts are offbeat and tasty. The well-chosen, somewhat dear, wine list contains some fine California vintages.

Corinna Lothar

Oyamel

401 Seventh St. NW

202/628-1005

Mexican

Oyamel in Penn Quarter, Jose Andres’ Cocina Mexicana, is proof that you can get good Mexican food in Washington.

Oyamel is no ordinary South-of-the-border joint. The fare is more varied than most and goes miles beyond burritos, tacos or huevos rancheros. Each dish, most of them in the small-plates concept, gets lots of attention in terms of preparation and presentation.

Guacamole, for example, is not a bowl of mashed avocado prepared hours earlier. It’s all prepared at the table, fresh as can be.

The gazpacho, too, delightfully goes beyond the predictable. It’s neither red nor finely blended nor tomato. Mr. Andres’ version uses chopped jicama root, mango, cucumbers, jalapenos and Mexican sour orange.

The made-to-order corn tortillas also should not be missed. We ordered several types of the $3-each tacos. A favorite was the braised oxtail with tomatoes and peppers, served with pineapple, onions and cilantro.

Among the fish offerings, we loved the red snapper ceviche. It’s super fresh and served with sliced avocado, tomato salsa, sweet onion, cilantro and lime juice.

At Oyamel, which recently moved from Crystal City, Mr. Andres offers what he does best: small-plate dishes from a large menu with high-quality ingredients, unexpected combinations and delightful artistic presentations.

Gabriella Boston