- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2002

Oo la la, it's so French. Cool, elegant, combining tones of gray, lavender and navy blue, Cafe 15 in the new Sofitel Hotel at the corner of 15th and H streets NW was designed by a Frenchman (Pierre-Yves Rochon); its kitchen is under the consulting guidance of an Alsatian chef (Antoine Westermann of the three-star Restaurant Buerehiesel in Strasbourg) and manned by an executive chef, sous-chef and pastry chef all from France.

The staff speaks French; the menu, although in English, is translated into French for those who may not know that frogs' legs are thighs, that is, cuisses de grenouilles in France. Portions are French-sized, not overwhelmingly large, and the cooking is la bonne cuisine Francaise.

The Sofitel occupies an old Washington landmark, built in 1880. It's good to see the space reused in such a positive way, just a stone's throw from the square named for General Lafayette, a true French friend of America.

Cafe 15 is anything but a cafe. It's an expensive restaurant, offering a six-course, $95 tasting menu for dinner; a three-course, $35 tasting menu at lunch; and high-priced a la carte selections at both meals. It's a sophisticated menu, well-prepared, but lacking the eclat and sparkle one would expect from such a distinguished roster in the kitchen. Basically, Cafe 15 offers excellent, but cautious, hotel cooking.

The best dishes we tasted were a lovely, delicate tomato consomme and a superb dessert of a caramelized slice of brioche bread served with a ripe roasted pear and beer ice cream yes, it really is made with beer. The brioche also has a touch of beer, which cuts the sweetness of the caramelization. The ice cream has a slight beery flavor at first, quickly replaced by a creamy taste. When the three elements of the dessert are eaten together, it's an unforgettable mouthful of deliciousness.

When a group of Chef Westermann's Alsatian fans came to Washington for the opening of the hotel recently, they were surprised that the beer ice cream the chef's Strasbourg trademark was not on the menu. Thanks, gentlemen and ladies, for insisting that Washington be introduced to this unique taste treat.

The tomato consomme, served at room temperature and, happily, not chilled as stated on the menu, looks like an almost colorless, transparent broth. It has a delicate yet distinct tomato flavor. The waiter pours the liquid over a small mound of stuffed vegetables, including tiny halved artichokes and a small chunk of eggplant. It's a perfect summer starter.

A warm vegetable soup with a dollop of fresh cream on top is a pleasant, if unexciting, appetizer. The vegetables have a nice texture chopped fine rather than chunky minestrone style and the use of chervil to season the soup gives it subtle character.

There are two substantial salad starters: a salad of four pieces of warm red mullet served with thin asparagus spears and greens, and warm squab breast with spring vegetables. The fish has a nice crusty exterior but was somewhat oversalted and overcooked. The dressing on the salad is lackluster; the dish needs some zip.

A luncheon salad of mixed greens with goat cheese and those delicious little artichokes and tomato confit is pleasant, the addition of olives and a balsamic vinaigrette adding character to the greens. The cheese is served on small rounds of bread rather than mixed into the salad.

Starters include such French favorites as house-made duck foie gras and sauteed frogs' legs with Alsatian ravioli filled with onion compote, as well as the ubiquitous Washington appetizer of tuna tartar, topped at Cafe 15 with an almond cod mousseline.

The kitchen is generous with its tomato confit, which appears on numerous dishes, including the chef's amuse bouche, served on paper-thin pastry rounds together with a thimbleful of jellied chopped lobster.

A main course of sauteed fillets of sea bass with wonderfully buttery vegetables is a light, satisfying entree. The dish could have used a bit more of the rosemary cream sauce as in all sauces and vinaigrettes at Cafe 15, herbs are used so subtly as to be almost undiscernible.

Caramelized duck breast, presented in a solid piece rather than the usual slices, was too sweet. The meat, although tender, was curiously without flavor or distinction, lacking even the slightly gamey quality of domestic ducks. The duck is accompanied by a small serving of pleasant sliced vegetables and a round of dry semolina, which needed a sauce or binding of some kind.

Service is smooth and professional; at a recent dinner, our young waiter, originally from Mali, could not have been more helpful or pleasant, and it was at his recommendation that we ordered the brioche, pear and beer ice cream.

Diners are greeted as special guests and made to feel welcome at Cafe 15. The kitchen, too, keeps up its end at both lunch and dinner with the chef's little treat to start off a meal and pastry chef Romain Renard's delectable miniature truffles, hazelnut meringues, caramels and paper-thin cinnamon crisps presented at the end of the meal. They are irresistible.

Cafe 15 has a good wine list, with all bottles exceeding $30. There is an excellent selection of well-priced wines by the glass.

As you enter the hotel from 15th Street, the dining room is on the right. On the left is the sensational bar. Done in jazzy black and white with red accents, it is an attractive, comfortable room with lots of armchairs, tables and plenty of room at the curved bar. The hotel also will be serving food in the bar "soon." It's a grand place to sit and sip and meet friends.

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