Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A little bit of France

The block around the Cleveland Park Metro has several restaurants I visit regularly, including Indique and Dino. Though Lavandou has been around for years, this was my first visit. Having Bistro du Coin and La Chaumiere at walking distance also made me reconsider the trek more than once.

Lavandou is everything a neighborhood French restaurant ought to be - friendly, well-priced, and with lots of potential patrons gawking through the picture window. We were there for brunch but upon sneaking a peek at the (entirely French) wine list, I found a nice selection of bottles, half-bottles and glasses. The specials board announced No Corkage fee Mondays and All You Can Eat Mussels on Tuesdays. Though they seemed to be a bit short-staffed (drinks took especially long) we were seated right away and the bread basket made a speedy appearance.

As as its name and decor attests, Lavandou features Provencal Cuisine - the Southern, Mediterranean region of France celebrated by painters and chefs alike. The dishes are less heavy than other French eateries in DC, and a strong emphasis is placed on olive oil, sea food, and aromatics. The four of us had the Easter Prix Fixe, three courses for 37 USD (tax, tip and beverages not included).

For a first course we ordered fresh duck pate, asparagus with truffle oil and parmessan cheese, and coddled eggs with cheese, cream and salmon eggs. Coddled eggs are not for the faint of heart - they are cooked in simmering water, in their shells or in ramekins, until set. The texture is a step above of a raw egg, but the flavor is wonderful, especially as it offset the creaminess of the dairy. The salmon eggs added little in terms of flavor, but they were definitively there, texture-wise. I spooned the mixture on the toast points provided and kept my gaze away. The pate was fresh and had the texture of tuna salad. The asparagus was just right for Easter and its promise of spring.

For second course, we ordered a linguini with sea food (mostly mussels and shrimp), baked salmon on a bed of leeks, and lamb steak. The sauce for the linguini was the best part of the dish - the flavors were balanced and the tomato tasted incredibly fresh. The pasta was made on the premises but was slightly overcooked (which, granted, is a matter of preference). The salmon was well-cooked but the leeks were confusing. They were billed as a fondue (as opposed to the more famous Swiss variation, this is a preparation of vegetables cooked over low heat until very soft and reduced to a pulp. The fondue included the green parts of the leeks and, for some reason, was very citrusy. I love having lamb for Easter, but this was my first time encountering a lamb steak. The portion was generous and perfectly seasoned, a straightforward portion of protein with no flourishes or extra sauce. I enjoyed every bite.

For dessert we ordered stuffed apple beignets, choux, Grand Marnier and chocolate crepes, and the themed dessert, "Ouefs a la Niege," also known as Floating Island. As with the rest of the meal, this is more about aromas than high technique. The beignets were the simplest - battered apples, deep fried with a side of compote. The crepes were basic but made with good ingredients, and the choux were as light as dough can possibly be. The floating island consisted of meringue floating on vanilla bean custard, a refresher after all that lamb.

With that wine list and the promise of all you can eat mussels, I will never talk myself out of taking the metro again.

3321 Connecticut Ave NW
Washington D.C. 20008
(202) 966-3003
Lavandou on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 7, 2008

Second Opinions

I try to never write up a restaurant until I've visited it a few times and have more to go on than my initial reaction. The first time I visited Oya was for Restaurant Week last August. A friend suggested we try it for lunch, and prior to that I had never heard of it. Before heading out, I went on their website to verify the address and was surprised to see how much copy they dedicated to their interior design. I called E. and she had gotten the same impression.

The kindest thing I could say about Oya's decor back then was that it was obvious that a lot of thought, care, and money had been put into the different design elements. It struck me as a design project run amok, akin to something you would see on Top Chef's ugly sister, Top Design. Granted, the look of daylight on the different elements in the room - white marble, a feather-covered column, a cellophane-like material surrounding a glass window to the kitchen that had a cascade over it, a fire runner - was simply too much. The lounge area, which features red roses, had no clear connection to the rest of the space. I enjoyed the food, but the place itself distracted me so much that the only thing I could remember were the scallops.

An invitation prompted me to give Oya a second chance. As I prepared myself to be assaulted by the decor, I was surprised that my dinner companions not only did not respond badly to it, but actually kind of liked it. I'll be the first to admit that the harshness is taken away by the soft lightning scheme, and that people all over the dinning room and the lounge seemed to be having a good time.

Upon opening my menu I discovered that Oya has a prix-fix year round - 20 dollars for lunch and 30 for dinner. Since the place is French/Asian fusion, this is a good way to try the different menu elements. I had a cilantro daiquiri (dare you to spot the 10 differences it has with a mojito) but only the bottom was deeply flavored. I should have probably let it seep more, or the bartender should have crushed the leaves a bit to unleash the aromatics.

The three of us ordered from the prix fix - I started with a sirloin tataki on a bed of greens and blood oranges. The tataki (thick slices, partially cooked with citrus) had a wonderful texture, and the flavors combined quite well. As is often the case with fusion places, you never know if you should reach for the fork or the chopsticks, but I knew only my first course would give me such a choice. One of my friends ordered the goat cheese with caramelized apples, and pronounced it a fine plate. For second course, we all had the scallops. The scallops are definitively worth remembering and recommending. They are served with hen of woods mushrooms, truffle jus and long noodles. The scallops are perfectly cooked, slightly sweet, and pair very well with the pasta. For dessert we all had bread pudding with caramelized bananas, which is a good if not stellar dessert.

I am glad I gave Oya a second chance, but for the pleasures of harmonious design, I'll head over to Central or Brasserie Beck.

Oya Restaurant and Lounge
799 9th St NW
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 393-1400
Oya Restaurant & Lounge on Urbanspoon