Poisson ‘À La John Haywood,’ a fish dish served at Petite Cerise in Washington D.C.
Poisson ‘À La John Haywood’ Credit: Nevin Martell

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.

The newly opened Petite Cerise in Shaw is not a paint-by-numbers French concept. “We’re all familiar with French onion soup, steak frites, and sole meunière,” says chef Jeremiah Langhorne, who also helms The Dabney, his award-winning homage to the mid-Atlantic located just a couple of blocks away. “But if you start to look into French cuisine, you realize that behind those dishes, there are 100 more that are interesting, unique, and different.”

Don’t worry, there are frites on the menu—and they’re très bien—along with other classic French dishes, but there’s a lot more to explore.

Langhorne and his business partner, Alex Zink, started batting around the idea for what would become Petite Cerise in 2017, just a year after opening The Dabney. They got more serious the following year and signed a lease on the corner of 7th and L streets NW in 2019. Construction was set to begin in the spring of 2020, but for obvious reasons, that didn’t happen. As the pandemic took hold, they began having serious reservations about opening another restaurant—“We were just trying to survive,” says Langhorne—but eventually they began rebuilding the 130-year-old structure, which was in grievous condition.

The look, feel, and approachability of Langhorne’s two restaurants are purposely divergent. The Dabney is dusky and built around dark tones; the two-story Petite Cerise is all windows and overwhelmingly white with cadmium green and gold accents. Langhorne’s first effort exudes earnestness and seriousness; the French spot’s mascot is playful and whimsical—a snail carrying a cherry as its back (the restaurant’s name means “little cherry”). Look for it jutting out from the corner of the building and in paper-clip form when the check arrives. “We wanted to get people to slow down,” says Langhorne of the escargot’s intention. “It’s also adorable.”

The price point at Petite Cerise is lower than its sister restaurant, since Langhorne wants it to be the kind of place folks can stop by for a meal once a week.

As for commonalities, both restaurants have kitchens to give guests an intimate look at the action unfolding and are ambitious undertakings in their own ways. Petite Cerise is open Tuesdays through Fridays for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as brunch and dinner on Saturday, and brunch on Sunday.

A selection of breakfast pastries from Petite Cerise in Washington, D.C.
A selection of breakfast pastries Credit: Nevin Martell

Let’s start with the first meal of the day, which Langhorne was determined to do. “I’m a big breakfast guy,” he says. “There’s such a simple, wonderful luxury to be able to sit back, enjoy a well-made pastry, a great cup of coffee—maybe an omelet or a juice—and just take your time and hang out.”

The pastry program is in its infancy but shows great promise. Croissant and pain au chocolat are flaky AF and buttery as all get out, canelé hit all the right notes, and glazed French crullers possess tender, custardy cores that are simply irresistible.

Croissants from Petite Cerise in Washington, D.C.
Croissants Credit: Nevin Martell

Though brioche is made in house, baguettes and sandwich breads are crafted by the rock-star team at Manifest Bread, because Langhorne wanted to source the best loaves possible rather than try to master the process. “It’s a very uniquely American thing to say, ‘I’m going to make everything in house myself,’” he says. “If you go to France and talk to a chef, they’d be like, ‘Why would I make bread? There’s a baker down the street who does it better than me.’”

Manifest’s toothsome, tasty country loaf is the foundation for the croques. Sturdy slices are fried in clarified butter, dolloped with béchamel sauce, buried in Gruyère and Comté cheese, and baked to create a crispy, crunchy lattice around the edges. In between these golden bookends are sheets of honey ham and more béchamel; the madame version is finished with a sunny-side up egg. A few cornichons and pickled onions complete the plate but do little to counteract the intensity of the sandwich. That’s OK, it’s how it’s supposed to be. This was one of the best croques I’ve enjoyed in years and utterly satiating.

Other highlights on the A.M. side of the equation: a tender omelet hiding caramelized onions and mushrooms sitting in a pool of Gruyère cream, and Camembert mousse topped-brûléed brioche (think of it as next level French toast) on a mound of strawberry jam.

Croque madame sandwich at Petite Cerise in Washington, D.C.
Croque madame Credit: Nevin Martell

At lunchtime, the menu transitions into snacks, small plates, mains, and sides (the two main croques are still available, listed as small plates, which they definitely are not; the outstanding omelet also endures for the midday crowd). Other worthy prospects include the Salade Lyonnaise with beautifully bitter Castelfranco radicchio and pig ears instead of lardons. Poached asparagus arrives with aerated Hollandaise and a quenelle of whipped cream, which are mixed together tableside and ladled over the green spears to create a contrast of light spring freshness and unfettered indulgence. Beef crudo turns out to be seasoned, seared, and sliced New York strip steak draped over cubes of panisse (fried chickpea flour), radicchio anchovy vinaigrette, and parsley. Not that I’m complaining; it’s delicious.

And then there are the frites, which are only available during the daytime and not during dinner.

Langhorne has a vision for them. “Fries need to be thinner. In that McDonald’s range, maybe even thinner,” he says. “They need to have a bubbly, crispy exterior, but a very nice, pillowy soft interior. They need to be golden, not brown. And I think that to make them delicious, cooking them in beef fat is the way to go. Though if someone’s vegetarian, we can fry theirs in oil.” 

Frites with roasted garlic, caramelized onion, and thyme aioli at Petite Cerise in Washington, D.C.
Frites with roasted garlic, caramelized onion, and thyme aioli Credit: Nevin Martell

He nailed them on all counts. A hefty hillock arrives with a roasted garlic, caramelized onion, and thyme aioli I can’t stop dipping in. There’s also Heinz on hand—no fancified alternatives or a house-made ’chup here. “It’s a fool’s errand to try to make ketchup better than the ketchup masters,” Langhorne says, and he’s right.

As dinner service begins, the menu transitions one more time, though there are a few holdovers from the lunch offerings. A standout is Poisson ‘À La John Haywood,’ Langhorne’s homage to the first chef he worked under at Charlottesville’s now-shuttered OXO. He makes a potato crepe to wrap around a piece of fish (it was snapper when I had it, now it’s halibut) to help steam it tender. The plate is ringed with generous bacon lardons and jammy balsamic-roasted pearl onions, which serve as nice counterpoints. Other early favorites include crawfish gratin, its rich bisque base boosted with lobster, and rôti de boeuf with poivre sauce and ramps.

Chef Jeremiah Langhorne presents a dish at his restaurant Petite Cerise in Washington, D.C.
Chef Jeremiah Langhorne presents a dish Credit: Nevin Martell

The restaurant represents a full circle for Langhorne, who believed his first restaurant was going to be a French concept. “It was going to be based on the bistronomy movement in Paris, where you take this refined cuisine and make it more approachable, more comfortable,” he says.

Working for Sean Brock at McCradys in Charleston, South Carolina, made him examine his own roots and got him thinking about how he could explore them in his cooking, which led to The Dabney instead. But his love of French cuisine never wavered. For the past seven years, he has been trying to visit France at least twice annually. “Except a two-year hiatus during the pandemic which almost killed me,” says the chef, who has been working to learn French, but is still at the beginning of that journey.

He and his wife fly into Paris, then rent a car or take trains to go deeper into L’hexagone. “That’s really the best way to get to know a country,” says Langhorne, who explored Lyon, Provence, and Brittany on previous trips. “If we get lost, we get lost.”

Part of getting off more well-worn paths meant trying to break his habit of dining at mostly Michelin-starred restaurants. “I just want to find a little neighborhood place where chefs might go to eat with their family,” he says.

I get the sense he hopes that’s what Petite Cerise becomes for D.C. I might not be a chef, but I’ll certainly be bringing my family in for a meal sooner rather than later. Petite Cerise is the kind of place I want us to hang out, take our time, and revel in the joy of French cuisine.  

Petite Cerise, 1027 7th St. NW (202) 977-4550, petitecerisedc.com.