A tall man with silver hair is hovering over my steak au poivre, his head bowed like a vulture. “What’s going on here?” he wants to know. I’m momentarily taken aback. A minute ago this man was shepherding diners to their seats; now he’s staring at my meat and asking the kind of open-ended question that can turn a quiet dinner into a management showdown.
Prior to his approach, I had asked our waitress if La Chaumière’s head chef, Patrick Orange, usually loaded his steak au poivre with so much poivre. His version of the classic bistro dish was not merely dredged in coarsely cracked peppercorns but buried dead in them; the top of his center-cut strip steak was paved beneath a blacktop of bumpy, charred heat. The rich flavor and moist texture of the aged meat, cooked medium-rare, was lost in an explosion of pepper that coated the roof of my mouth with fiery, woody aromatics. Not even the buttery, browned peppercorn sauce could reduce the heat. The waitress assured me this was the chef’s standard approach. I made a mental note and soldiered on.
Then the tall man appeared. I pressed him about the steak, too, and he not only confirmed the waitress’s answer but also remarked that the dish was one of La Chaumière’s most popular—though he quickly added that he would not personally order it, hinting that he’d take a good-tasting meat over a good burn any day. He suggested I take a knife to the layer of peppercorns and proceed. Following orders, I scraped until I found my desired heat level—and found goodness again in that high-priced cut of beef.
The wise old man of La Chaumière is Gerard Pain, one of the patriarchs of the local French bistro circuit. Pain, a former chef, founded La Chaumière in 1976 after opening L’Escargot in Cleveland Park in 1971. His steak au poivre consultation proved effective: Not only did it save the meat from choking in peppercorns, it saved him the cost of replacing the dish. He also managed to show disrespect for one of Orange’s popular plates without once indicating that he thought his longtime chef de cuisine had developed an unhealthy relationship with the spice.
If any one element of La Chaumière feels like the real thing, as though a part of the French-country-inn dining experience has been transported to Georgetown, it has to be Pain. The gas-burning fireplace near the front of the restaurant, the tools and copper pots affixed to the walls, the wood-beamed ceiling—these are all accoutrements selected to make you feel warm and nostalgic for something you might have never experienced. Pain, a French native who moved to D.C. in the early ’60s, is the genuine article, a host who complements La Chaumière’s hearthside feel, particularly when one of Orange’s dishes provides too much warmth of its own.
Orange, fortunately, doesn’t need the owner to cover for him often. While Orange’s menu and approach to certain bistro staples may stretch Pain’s concept of French cooking, the chef, hired in 1994, clearly has a firm grasp of the bourgeois cuisine that serves as La Chaumière’s calling card and continues to allow the restaurant to trade on its folksy name, which translates into “thatched cottage.”
Orange’s salmon in puff pastry with Champagne-dill sauce lets all the ingredients express their flavors, rather than merely relying on the flaky, buttery crust to flirt with your baser culinary desires. The pink fillet, the sautéed spinach, and the fluffy salmon mousse all assert themselves despite being robed in thin layers of beautifully browned puff pastry. Orange’s choucroute garnie à l’Alsacienne mixes his bittersweet sauerkraut with enough pork to satisfy any pig who orders it; the white oversized bowl comes stuffed with smoked pork loin, cured pork shanks, garlic sausage, house-made boudin blanc, even pieces of lean fatback. Incidentally, if a waiter tells you that the choucroute is not prepared with white wine, ignore him; he’s wrong. He’s part of a wait staff that often seems too green for such a white-linen restaurant.
Orange dares to cross borders, too. Two of his veal dishes speak with an Italian accent. His ravioli appetizer special consists of three pillows stuffed with a rough-cut mixture of braised veal shank and wild mushrooms, which is mixed with a piquant demi-glace-white-wine sauce that makes the entire dish taste like a high-end sloppy Joe. Yes, that is a compliment. The veal piccata entree is far more subtle; the milky meat, enveloped in a surprisingly subdued lemon-butter sauce with pan juices, practically melts in your mouth.
La Chaumière is far more interested, of course, in flying the tricolors of France than the tricolors of Italy. The kitchen particularly stands tall with its architectural soufflé dishes, both sweet and savory, which are well worth the 20-minute wait. The Emmenthaler soufflé appetizer leans a little too heavily on the eggs, at the expense of the nutty cheese, but the gravity-defying dish whips the air we breathe, literally, into a delicious slice of life. The dessert soufflé is even more satisfying, a canister of spongy dark chocolate whose slight bitterness goes well with the creamy Grand Marnier sauce that you pour into the interior of the dish.
The La Chaumière experience is yours to complete. The restaurant gives you just enough country-inn elements—the décor, the wait staff in black ties and aprons, the slightly sweet onion soup, the garlic-butter-and-parsley snails (stuffed back in the shells for maximum effect), the small-but-judicious wine list—to let you fill in the rest of the picture. Pretend that outside those stucco walls lies a rolling French countryside, not a strip of American storefronts. And if you fail in this task, just call Gerard Pain to your table. He’ll try to fix it.
La Chaumière, 2813 M Street NW, (202) 338-1784. —Tim Carman
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