- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 25, 2001

The juxtaposition of a restaurant named Montmartre and a Southeast Washington address near Eastern Market isn't as unlikely as it seems. Look fast, and you can almost confuse the landmark dome of Sacre Coeur atop the Parisian site with the familiar Capitol building seven blocks away from this new eatery at 327 Seventh Street SE.
The atmosphere at Montmartre is warm and welcoming. The walls are sponged with yellow paint, except for the front, which is a window facing the street and sun. The restaurant opened just seven weeks ago, replacing the relatively short-lived Bluestone Cafe, and already has a loyal following among Capitol Hill denizens always hungry for quality dining in an attractive, informal setting.
The owners are French, as is the chef, giving it an air of authenticity beyond the colorful wall art that includes such Parisian place signs as Place du Tertre. The partners, chef Stephane Lezla and manager Christophe Raynal, worked previously at Bistrot Lepic Georgetown. Mr. Lezla also is the former executive chef for Le Lavandou in Adams Morgan and a veteran of the former Provence restaurant in West End.
Montmartre's great strength, apart from its menu, is its intimacy. There are just 18 tables, six seats at a tiny bar and, in warm weather, four umbrella-shaded tables on the small terrace facing Seventh Street. The kitchen is open.
The high, unfettered ceiling, however, doesn't help with acoustics, and conversation on a crowded night can be difficult.
All the better reason, then, to concentrate on the food, which certainly merits attention. Menu listings are in French, with English translation underneath. Though limited in number, the offerings are consistently top-notch. Hors d'oeuvres and soups are roughly similar at lunch and dinner in both conception and price, with the exception of an "escargolade a l'ail" (snails fricassee in garlic butter) on the dinner menu for $7.95.
Entrees at dinner are slightly more expensive $1 or $2 more with additions that include seared tuna with shallots, tomatoes, capers and black olives (Thon basquaise) and a loin of lamb with a tian of spinach, roasted peppers and garlic. Chicken salad with sauteed vegetables over field greens and mixed grilled seafood over field greens are exclusive lunch offerings.
Familiarity breeds contentment in this scheme of things, especially because many of the items are not found on many other restaurant menus around town. They aren't likely to be approved by the cholesterol-conscious food police, either. Entrees include beef hanger steak with sauteed potatoes, braised rabbit leg with creamy pasta, and sauteed calf's liver with mashed potatoes. Imagine the bliss of consuming any of these at lunch with a glass of full-bodied red wine.
Here again, selections are limited to two red wines by the glass, both French (as is the entire wine list), in addition to a slightly less expensive glass of house red (a merlot) for $5.50. The most expensive glass is a Pouilly-Fume, at $7, with a glass of champagne for $7.50. The house white is chardonnay.
The few daily specials the chef conjures up often are only slightly different versions of the standard menu dish. A salmon special at one lunch was a modestly sized, tender fillet served with a sauce of capers, beets, sun-dried tomatoes and garlic. Another day, an appetizer of steamed mussels with herbs, shallot and pastis broth (at $7.95) proved more than adequate for a complete meal. A cream of cauliflower soup with saffron mussels is a real bargain at $4.95. Add the homemade country pate with cornichons at $5.25, and midday needs are more than satisfied for variety and taste.
Lemon-lime risotto with shrimps is a $13.95 entree at lunch, a $7.95 appetizer at night. A luncheon companion raved over her luncheon choice of the mixed grilled seafood salad. Morsels of salmon, scallops, shrimp and haddock beautifully blended together with a sesame-flavored dressing were decorated, for color, with bits of mango and tomato. The greens included glistening seaweed curlicue strips.
The owners have said most of their produce and some herbs will come from an organic farmer in Colonial Beach, Va., who is a French native naturellement.
It was a tough decision at dinner, but our party managed to spread choices liberally around the menu. One chose to have steamed mussels for her entree, which prompted the waiter to suggest doubling the order so the rest of the table could enjoy them as an appetizer. Said and done.
Seared tuna would come quite underdone, one of our party was warned. No choice on that. Fortunately, that didn't deter the diner, who ecstatically agreed with the chef's approach. A hanger steak was prepared red but not bloody. Monkfish medallions, which normally are mild and almost boring, were complemented neatly with potato and Swiss chard gratin and anchovy butter.
Nobody pushed bottled water, and the requested tap water was delivered promptly. The French bread was warm and fresh. Our only gripe was about the relatively small size of the wineglasses. Because we had not ordered an entire bottle, the single portions looked minuscule on the table.
Desserts at the moment are old-fashioned standards: creme caramel, floating island fruit tarts, sorbet and "tarte Alsacienne aux pommes," which turned out to be a barely adequate apple tart, at least in contrast to more robust American apple pie.
The service, though, was quite special. One of our party was observing a birthday, and word of the occasion sent ahead allowed the chef to prepare an extra-large apple tart, which was delivered to the table with the requisite candle and song. There were cheers all around as other diners joined in the merriment.
Reservations are required for dinner, or customers risk waiting in line, even during the week.

RESTAURANT: Montmartre, 327 Seventh St. SE; 202/544-1244
HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and until 9 p.m. Sunday
COST: Appetizers, $5.95 to $7.95; soup, $4.95 to $5.50; entrees, $11.95 to $19.95; desserts, $6
CREDIT CARDS: All credit cards

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