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Among the few food-writing credentials that I can mention around snobs is that I have made the obligatory pilgrimage to France. Two of them, actually, and I plan to go again, just as soon as I finish paying for the lunch I had in Paris last fall. (Tip: Just because champagne is forced upon you does not mean that it’s free.) France is the undisputed capital of haute cuisine, fine, but its classist culture is also virtually blind to societal rank when it comes to making room for folks at the fine-dining trough. It’s a country where you can die a culinary aesthete having never worn a gown or a tie largely because unpretentious restaurants are the normplaces where refinement is never mentioned, only proved, one plate at a time. Places like Lavandou.
Not that Lavandou recalls any place so much as Cleveland Park, which is where it’s been beloved but barely visible for most of the past decade. The restaurant, which closed for renovations last summer and reopened less than two months ago, has changed, but not so drastically that old-timers have started getting windy about the good old days. Lavandou has managed to keep pace with neighboring competition (Greenwood, Ardeo, Coppi’s Vigorelli) even though its owners clearly weren’t consulting top-shelf designers during the months construction workers spent swallowing the barbershop that used to be next door.
Lavandou, which is the trailblazer on what’s now the most appealing restaurant strip in the city, is still small, even though it’s twice its original size. As was the case in the old place, diners are packed in, left to feel something between cozy and cramped. The new front windows add considerable light, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Despite its being recently renovated, there’s something about the place that feels unimproved. The French signifiers in the mural that consumes one wall are a touch cornballa field of lavender, a sunning, wine-sipping babeand the image’s bright colors beg to be muted. The bar area is practically nonexistent, the Provençal tablecloths are hidden beneath unsightly plastic protectors, and the only thing really breaking up the boxy room is a coat rack that could have been bought at a garage sale. Standing near the host table one night, a woman asks her friend, “We waited all those months for this?”
Yes, and it was worth it. From bistros on up, the best French eateries are carried by their kitchens, and Lavandou is no exception. The time off didn’t rust chef Stefan Lezla’s talents any. The menu has grown almost as much as the restaurant, and the new additions are some of the highlights: An oozy patch of goat cheese holds red peppers and onion compote atop a hot, savory tart. A splash of curry dressing unifies a wintry salad of warm apples, duck prosciutto, and confit nestled on a bed of walnut-sprinkled mâche. The chicken livers served with grilled bread taste so classic it’s a wonder that the place managed to keep them off the menu for this long.
During meals, host Barry Affhar walks crazed figure-eights through the room, and his presencehis suit double-breasted but not flashy, his face broadcasting a quiet concern for your pleasurefairly represents the restaurant’s Provençal-style cuisine. The menu’s ripe with dishes that seem to push the ingredients to the breaking pointshrimp and scallops drizzled with basil oil and sour grape juice, grilled quail with banon cheese and sage saucebut nothing we try is tweaked beyond reason. A well-balanced lentil salad, flavored with black truffles and bacon, hides meaty chunks of warm cod. Golden saffron broth surrounds a healthy mound of cooked spinach; it’s an awesome soup, and once you puncture the poached egg, it becomes something else as the yolk thickens the broth and clings to the greens. Bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin, thick as a dictionary but tender through and through, brings a small mound of bean brandadea creamy, pungent bonus. The ham-based sauce covering the veal just keeps givingartichokes, mushrooms, slivers of garlic that crackle and squirt when bitten.
The stress of accommodating Saturday night crowds seven days a week doesn’t always bring out the best in the waiters, who can be surly as a matter of principle; our guy one night decides he knows what we want without even asking, all but insisting we order a wine we didn’t choose and pouring us a second bottle of Perrier when we would’ve preferred to switch to tap water. And some of the dishes taste rushed: The vegetables in the lamb stew are unevenly cooked, the parchment-wrapped salmon could stand to have more herbs, and when I listen closely, I swear I can hear yawns coming from the open mouths of our bland beer-steamed mussels.
But the standing-room-only bustle cancels out the banality of the room, and it’s hard not to enjoy the added suspense provided by a pastry tray that’s in constant circulation. As we take our seats one night, we’re warned that there’s only one order of veal cheeks left. We stake our claim to it, deciding that in-demand equals good. The flavor of the meat registers in layers, enlivened by a deep-red, sweet-tart wine and citrus sauce; a hollowed-out potato sits in the center of the plate, posing as a marrow-filled bone. It’s the kind of dish a lifestyle magazine might put on its cover, but it’s soul food nonetheless.
Lavandou, 3321 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 966-3003.
Spicy Delight is a Caribbean takeout that, from a distance, resembles a check-cashing stand that’s seen its share of deals gone bad. Once inside, the neighborly Rastafarian vibe is comforting, and the guy behind the counter isn’t afraid to toot his own horn. “Best oxtail in D.C.,” he insists, although what he serves me is a little tough. The joint’s real forte is jerk. Dripping an inky, sticky glaze, the jerk chicken makes for a seething, eye-watering head trip of a meal. The ribs are even better, although they’re only served on weekends. “I’ll make them during the week if I can find some cheap,” says the counter guy. I suggest calling ahead to see if he’s found a bargain.
Spicy Delight, 308 Carroll St. NW, (202) 829-9783.