La Chaumiere, a long-established Georgetown bistro, is so popular with its regular patrons that owners really don’t have to hype a special menu for Valentine’s Day.
They do, however, make a point of recognizing there is something special about today’s date. In recognition of what many celebrate as a holiday for romance, Chef Patrick Orange is cooking up the supremely rich beef Wellington (filet de boeuf en croute), as hearty a dish as a person could wish.
Composed of foie gras and underdone tenderloin encased in brioche pastry and prepared, ideally, with port or Madeira wine, this surely will get the blood racing if an over-ample portion doesn’t put lovers into a deep sleep.
Ah, well, bliss comes in many forms. The price per portion is $28. If you miss it this time around (this week today through Saturday), owners plan to offer it on all major holidays in the future.
To many, the opportunity of eating veal cheeks is another sort of high available at La Chaumiere, which takes pride in offering traditional French dishes. The menu offers certain specials three days a week: Tuesday, French crepes filled with crab meat; Wednesday, couscous; Thursday, cassoulet.
But don’t be fooled. One recent Tuesday a neighboring table of four dug into Thursday’s printed favorite. Presumably, the customers were regulars and have some extra clout. Or maybe anyone can call in advance to request one of these dishes out of order.
Lovers of the familiar old-fashioned classic French cuisine as opposed to the lighter improvisational touch that comes with mixing French and American approaches flock to La Chaumiere. Yearning for casserole of rabbit or tripes stewed in Calvados? No problem.
The atmosphere is reminiscent of an Old World bistro short on fuss and long on tradition. The restaurant hasn’t made it through a quarter-century or more at the same location busy M Street on the eastern flank of Georgetown without devising a formula that works.
Disdainful of theatrical flash, the restaurant no doubt survives because of its comfortable, chummy atmosphere. The dining room could serve as the stage of a play about life in a country inn. Founder/owner Gerard Pain would have a leading part, of course, as would his daughter Geraldine, now the manager, who acts as hostess and oversees service part of each day.
A gas-fired stone fireplace in the center of the room contributes to its laid-back charm. Decor is rustic: cane chairs, dark woodwork against cream-colored walls, a display of copper cookware, wine bottles and farm implements. All that is missing is a thatched roof exterior after all,”chaumiere” can be translated as “thatched cottage.”
The bar near the entrance is for effect only. No one sits there over a wine glass or a coffee and Calva, as many regulars do in Parisian cafes. Eating here is serious business. Those wishing to do business in private can rent an upstairs room or claim the intimate chamber that fronts directly on M Street.
During busy times, locals in the neighborhood who treat it as a club of sorts seem to get extra attention beyond what a mere stranger can expect.
Our table of two, near the cashier at the entrance far from the kitchen, waited a half-hour for an appetizer to be served at lunch one busy weekday. On the other hand, we were blessed because in a place where friends customarily meet and greet one another, there is no need for intrusive background music and, at least on two occasions, the use of cell phones by patrons during the course of their meal was blessedly minimal.
Appetizers are classic: a soup of the day and always a perfectly prepared onion soup, as well as smoked salmon, snails, baked clams, the chef’s own pate, plus two house specialties marked as such: a white sausage and pike dumpling in lobster sauce, which can be ordered as entrees.
Just as welcome for lovers of old-style French cooking are the coq au vin, calf’s liver with shallots, or calf’s brain with capers. A generous portion of mussels in white wine ($11.95), heady with white wine and garlic, makes a fine lunch with a house salad on the side ($4.25).
However, a red snapper entree that took another half-hour to arrive at lunch was somewhat overcooked, as was the overpriced Dover sole ($29.50) that we tried one evening. The simple presentation of the sole helped compensate, however: a smattering of potato puree and a bright green al-dente broccoli. Alas, a fresh raspberry tart ordered at lunch was too cold for enjoyment, and the fruit lacked flavor.
Not so the warm apple tart offered in the evening. A waiter proposed either the tart or a souffle, both to be ordered ahead of time. Individual souffles costing $9, which are available for lunch as well, are either Grand Marnier, raspberry or chocolate. Other conventional choices include profiterolles and creme brulee.
La Chaumiere has joined the current cost-conscious bandwagon in one respect: a sign on the window announces that “Back by Popular Demand” a $9.95 lunch consisting of soup, an hors d’oeuvre, and choice of tea or coffee.
But take heed, all vegetarians. This isn’t the place to indulge your fantasies. French restaurants traditionally do not recognize the abstemious. At La Chaumiere, the menu reads “vegetarian dish of the day, priced daily,” that can consist of whatever a chef wants to produce. Our guest took her chances and was given a melange of not-too-artfully arranged cooked vegetables topped with a square of beet. She maintains that on a previous visit the plate looked more inspired.
Our wine choices were not too inspiring, either. A glass of white zinfandel probably shouldn’t be on such a menu. The California product is better served at a picnic where no one expects the sweet cool liquid to complement the food. We ordered one just to see if the waiter would suggest another wine for the same price. He looked faintly aghast but didn’t politely suggest another choice, perhaps out of the old tradition that the customer always is right.
But then again, he wasn’t up to description of any kind. We gently asked about the special of the day and how it might compare with one of the regular menu offerings. “Both are good,” he replied blandly.
American wines seem favored by the glass.
RESTAURANT: La Chaumiere, 2813 M St. NW; 202/338-1784
HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday; closed Sunday
COST: Soup $4.50 to $5.25 (lunch), $5 to $6.95 (dinner); appetizers $5.75 to $8 (lunch), $6 to $8.75 (dinner); salads $4.25 to $12.50 (lunch) $5.25 to $6.50 (dinner); entrees $11.95 to $29.50; desserts $5.75 to $9; wines by the glass $5.50 to $8.25, and bottles $21 to $695
CREDIT CARDS: All major credit cards
PARKING: Street; two hours’ free parking at the Four Seasons Hotel across the street at dinner
ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible