If you, like me, are too lazy or too hurried to pack your lunch in the morning before heading to work, then you have no doubt discovered a sad truth on your daily forages for food: There isn’t any.
OK, perhaps I’m being a little bombasticbut just a little. Adams Morgan, where I spend my workdays, explodes into an eating mecca at night, but it’s bleaker while the sun shines. So’s Your Mom does the deli thing fairly well, miraculously remembering all 20 of your usual sandwiches and what you like on them; La Granja de Oro makes a fabulous Peruvian-style roast-chicken sandwich; and Mixtec creates chicken soup on demand, using a combination of fresh chicken stock and the same carefully prepared ingredients that go into its Mexican specialties. There are a few others, but the places that are reasonably inexpensive, reasonably fast, and actually cooking rather than assembling foods that were produced in a factory weeks earlier can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
So it seemed a godsend when Chez Antoine, run by native Frenchman Chef Jerome Renaud-Goud, opened among the predictable collection of lunch joints that line 18th Street and Columbia Road. Chez Antoine operates on a familiar template: the French-inflected sandwich shop, which has been a big success locally for La Madeleine and nationally for Au Bon Pain and Vie de France. The big difference is that there is an air of cynicism about the chains, from Vie’s Le Corned Beef sandwich to the ghastly microwaved entrees that Madeleine foists off on unsuspecting diners in the evenings.
The other difference is polish. Renaud-Goud clearly could not afford to be choosy about location, and very little of an obviously shoestring budget was invested in atmospherethe dining room is a depressing mix of the last three tenants’ decorating choices, with fake-wood paneling giving way to stucco giving way to mirrors, all held together by Excedrin-green trim. Though not a first-date destination, Chez Antoine makes up for its interior-design failure by often succeeding in the kitchen, and all its dishes, including the ice cream, are made in-house.
Chez Antoine has a surprisingly extensive menu, which, due to idiosyncratic organization and disastrous typography, reveals itself completely only over multiple visits. In addition to soups, appetizer salads, and cold sandwiches, there are also, I’ve gradually become aware, a few main courses, cheese plates, an omelet, large salads, and both savory and dessert crepes. Except for the deluxe cheese plate, which could easily be shared by two or three people, nothing is more than $7.50 on the largely à la carte menu. The three-course dinner, which includes an entree, soup or salad, and dessert, is $12.
Simple food done well is a pleasure any time, and at lunch it seems almost miraculous. Here Chez Antoine excels. The cold sandwiches, all made to order, are much like the ones I’d make at home if I had good leftovers, but they come with much better accouterments than what I have lying around the house. The grilled beef is marinated in balsamic vinegar, garlic, and olive oil; although bland, it’s nicely accompanied by oven-dried tomatoes, basil oil, caramelized onions, and capers. The chicken, marinated in lemon juice, is much bettermoist and flavorful and well complemented by tomatoes, garlic purée, and Dijon mustard. The duck mousse is a bit too creamy, but it has an intense liver flavor and is delicious with just a few cornichons. If the baguette I’m inclined to choose for my sandwiches lacks the crust of a top-flight bread, it’s still probably the best sandwich roll in the area, chewy with a good wheat flavor.
Chez Antoine also makes two hot sandwiches. The better is the croque monsieur, a ham-and-cheese grilled with a béchamel sauce with just a hint of white wine. Crispy on the outside and almost liquid on the inside, the sandwich is dominated by the flavor of the ham. There’s also a perfectly serviceable hamburger. The beef has a satisfying smoky flavor and the soft texture I associate with home grilling. But those who like their burgers traditional will reject the house fixins: tartar sauce, dried tomatoes, and caramelized onions.
Appetizer salads are simplejust lettucebut the mesclun is fresh and bitter and the house-made vinaigrette is sharp and tangy. The Caesar salad barely qualifies as such, served untossed and without anchovies, but the dressing is quite good, robustly fishy and obviously homemade. The dinner-size salads, based around the same meats that go into the sandwiches, are less successful; Chez Antoine’s minimalist approach to greens just doesn’t yield varied enough results for satisfying main courses.
Dessert at lunchtime is an extravagance, but don’t be surprised if the options at Chez Antoine tempt you. You can do well if you order carefully. The chocolate mousse’s excessive sweetness detracts from an otherwise excellent example of the genre, and the crème caramel is bland without its sauce. The pecan cookies, though, are a delight, strongly nutty and light enough not to be overwhelming after one of the heavier meals. And the ice creams are unusually good. My favorite is the chocolate with caramelized pecans, which is everything the mousse isn’t, with deep chocolate flavor and just a hint of sweetness punctuated by crisp and perfectly caramelized pralines.
Although Chez Antoine’s menu and counter service are geared more for lunch, the restaurant remains open until 11 p.m. and offers a few dinner-appropriate entrees. There are several traditional crepes with debilitatingly rich fillings. The best is also probably the lightest: the Lyonnaise, which contrasts sweet caramelized onions and dried tomatoes with a sharp and relatively low-fat goat cheese. The jewel of the dinner menu is an imperfect but nonetheless excellent beef bourguignon. Served in an opulent wine sauce, the hearty stew includes the necessary hint of pork and would be perfect if the meat were allowed to cook a little longer and the traditional mushrooms were included. It’s served with a sophisticated and unexpected potato gratin that’s more buttery than cheesy and could sit proudly on any plate in the District.
Chez Antoine has the best sandwiches in Adams Morgan and a menu of surprising depth. Still, on more than one occasion, I’ve headed out to lunch with the intention of dining there, only to find myself eating somewhere inferior. Sadly, the restaurant’s low-budget atmosphere has yet to be ameliorated by a roomful of happy diners. There might be only one or two tables occupied at lunch, when the only natural light comes from a single window at the front of the long, narrow space and gives up long before it reaches the counter in the back. At dinner, the restaurant is even emptierit might just be you and Chef Renaud-Goud. No matter how good the food smells, it can be depressing to sit in a place where the strongest scent is that of impending failure. Still, I hope this one makes it.
Chez Antoine, 2427 18th St. NW, (202) 387-6295. Jandos Rothstein
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