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If it stands the test of time, Petits Plats will surely become many things to many people—a neighborhood bistro, a take-out savior, a killer patio equipped with wait staff and food. But everyone will know it as a social place. This is a restaurant where an owner can deliver a pre-appetizer gift from the kitchen—a single slice of toast, say, topped with halved green olives, an anchovy fillet, and tomato—and recite his resume. Or recount his trip to France to buy supplies. Thick European accents waft through the dining room like distant opera, much kissing transpires around the doorway, and, at some point during my post-meal coffee, I invariably look up to find smiling chef Oumar Sy, his hand extended, wondering how everything is.
Everything is good, sometimes very good. Sy and his partners, Cecile Fortin and her brother, Frederic Darricarrere, all come from Bistrot Lepic, the much-loved French outpost in upper Georgetown, and their experience shows even during Plats’ infancy. Fortin and Darricarrere mind the front of the house with a winking, glad-you-could-come vigor that can make the common act of taking a seat feel rather sexy; and Sy’s food, simple and direct, often manages to sustain the mood. Order his mussels set in a creamy green pea broth and you’ll get the idea.
Plats opened during the right season. Its front patio interprets “sidewalk dining” quite literally; there’s little space between the tables and the sidewalk, and on a warm Friday, it can be difficult to tell staff from customers and passers-by. Woodley Park hasn’t felt so merry since that panda retired to the sky, and there are appetizers here that will make you pray for spring to stay.
Asparagus, a shade softer than firm and dolloped with olive tapenade, heralds the season like nothing this side of a gazpacho that Sy indecently renders as a creamy, cold tomato soup, finished with a toast raft ferrying a pile of smoked trout. It’s not what you expect—whereas there’s some chunk to traditional gazpacho, this soup would flow clean through a strainer—but it’s a cool pleasure regardless. Smoked salmon, flecked with dill, arrives sheer-cut, a velvety spread of flesh moistened by a light mustard sauce. A mix of duck and foie gras serves as Plats’ house pate; the duck meat adds welcome texture to the rich, buttery spread, which would be perfect if it came with more than one toast slice. A roguette-and-heart-of-palm salad is similarly marred; the young greens are snappy-crisp, but given what’s advertised on the menu, it seems reasonable to expect more than a few measly heart-of-palm slices.
Sy’s cooking is natural and unpretentious. When his entrees aren’t traditional, like his wine-soaked lamb loin, they’re informed by an easy eclecticism. His take on coquilles St. Jacques is straight-up: sweet and creamy save for a few delicious, leek-stuffed rigatonis. Artichoke bottoms make a couple of appearances, once as a bed for herb-and-garlic-scented monkfish, and again mingled with shrimp prepared so simply they might as well be Tuscan.
At first blush, Plats’ menu, which is supplemented by a small list of daily specials (asparagus soup and veal tongue seem to be off-menu mainstays, and if they’re available, the crisp, saffron-yellow salmon cakes are a must), strikes me as a little timid. But Sy’s dishes offer more than the menu descriptions suggest. Gazpacho is a good example. Ditto the quail confit: Each moist, boneless cut of bird comes wrapped around an earthy marriage of diced mushrooms and ham.
Any French restaurant looking to draw a neighborhood crowd is required to serve beef and chicken as a means of survival, and Sy addresses this obligation with mixed results. Seriously tender beef medallions arrive around ruffled strips of mashed potatoes—pure cream and big potato flavor. Plats’ roast chicken, on the other hand, is seriously bland; there’s no character to the meat, and the uncrisp skin hangs off the bird like too-big pajamas. Were it not for the mashed potatoes, intensely flavored with truffles this time, the dish would be a total disaster.
Plats sits inside the brownstone that last housed Petitto’s, a restaurant known less for its Nixon-era Italian-American food than for its often rowdy weekend opera jams. With little prompting, Plats’ owners will lay out their plans for the big old building, a handsome structure notable for its high ceilings, wood floors, and fireplaces. Plats isn’t filling the whole place yet; the upstairs is still mostly storage, and the basement has yet to become the takeout and pastries cafe that Darricarrere envisions—let’s hope his plans involve better desserts than those currently being served.
But Plats is on firm ground already. Sy’s handiwork is priced well, and one look at the table settings makes it clear that this restaurant won’t expire because it takes itself too seriously: The salt and pepper shakers come in the form of smiling squids.
Petits Plats, 2653 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 518-0018.
Citing a recent column on San Marzano, one reader wonders “why you’d give press to a crummy chain when Prospects is only a few blocks away.” She’s got a point. The pies at Prospects on Prospect Street are crisp, blistered, often funky testaments to the limitless potential of modernist pizza. I’m partial to the one topped with lamb sausage and shallots, and the vegetarian pie, with its psychedelic swirl of pesto, plum tomatoes, and wild mushrooms, is the meatless pizza that other restaurants can never seem to make tasty. I credit the cheese: The house’s mix of Asiago, fontina, Parmesan, romano, and provolone could make you forget about melted mozzarella altogether.
Prospects on Prospect Street, 3203 Prospect St. NW, (202) 298-6800.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.