- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Sofitel Lafayette Square - actually at 15th and H streets Northwest - has revamped its restaurant as Ici Urban Bistro. It’s a good name for a semiformal restaurant with a down-to-earth menu.

The expensive minimalist dishes and pretentious atmosphere of Cafe 15 are gone, replaced by Ici’s friendly, warm atmosphere in the dining room to match the summer ambience outside.

Executive chef Philippe Piel describes the menu as “French in fundamentals, fun on the plate.” His French comfort food includes slow-cooked casseroles, snails in garlic butter, onion soup, salade nicoise, and mussels in white wine.

The mussels are particularly good: small, tender and sweet, bathed in a rich broth of white wine and cream with saffron, chopped onion and chives.

Mr. Piel pays homage to his native Brittany with crepes. At Ici, three crepes are filled with diced chicken in bechamel sauce, folded into quarters and placed one atop the other, surrounded by a fricassee of mushrooms in a rich, creamy sauce. It was the only dish that disappointed: flavorless chicken and mushy crepes, tasting half-cooked.

Less in the French tradition are seared sea scallops, Maryland crab remoulade, Black Angus burgers or sweet-potato fries. The scallops were a perfect starter, served on a bed of fresh spinach with a few sauteed apple slices and a satiny cider sauce. The combination was wonderful and satisfying.

Baby spinach and endive salad was refreshing, with a fine combination of tastes and textures. The slightly bitter spinach and chopped endive were nicely set off by small chunks of blue cheese and sweet roasted walnuts.

Roast chicken is another classic bistro dish. Mr. Piel roasts a chicken breast and serves it in its pan juices, surrounded by fresh vegetables. The menu changed somewhat recently when the poulet grand’mere (grandmother’s chicken), which incorporated potatoes, onions and bits of bacon, became chicken with carrots and asparagus. Either dish is homey and delicious.

In a recent special, four generous slices of veal loin were served with spinach. The veal could have been more tender, but the flavor was excellent, and the sauce of pan juices served it and the spinach well. Roasted Chesapeake rockfish is served with ratatouille; Maine lobster is sauteed with cherry tomatoes, zucchini and yellow peppers with a little white wine and cream.

Other meat choices include pork tenderloin, a 6-ounce beef filet and a 10-ounce New York steak. Potatoes can be ordered at dinner in various forms: parsley fries with roasted garlic mayonnaise, Cajun fries with a Louisiana remoulade, Parmesan fries with a pesto mayonnaise, or sweet-potato fries with a Roquefort dipping sauce.

Two casseroles are served at lunch and dinner: a Provencale lamb ragout and a stew of shrimp with white beans, Spanish sausage and lemon confit.

There’s a choice of vegetarian dishes, fettuccine with a sauce of garlic and tomatoes or a risotto with zucchini, peas and asparagus.

The lunch prices are similar to those at dinner. There are a few additional sandwiches at lunch.

Ici’s “30-minute lunch” ($29) is four dishes on a four-sided platter. There are three set menu choices, each with a first course, a fish or meat course, a vegetable course and a minidessert. Drinks are extra.

The desserts are splendid. Pastry chef Jerome Colin’s signature dish is a coconut bombe, a round of delicately flavored ice cream surrounded by slices of crunchy glazed bananas and topped with a coulis of passion fruit and guava. It’s delicious. At lunch, there’s also an assortment of $3 minidesserts.

RESTAURANT: Ici Urban Bistro, 806 15th St. NW; www.iciurbanbistro.com, 202/730-8800

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Small plates and starters $8 to $16; main courses $18 to $29; desserts $7 to $12; brunch $35

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Metered street parking usually available at night. Lunch and dinner valet parking $10

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: McPherson Square

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