Journey to France at Hill’s Montmartre

Posted March 16, 2005 at 5:19pm

“Long time no see,” the waiter says while greeting me on a second trip to Capitol Hill’s cheerful Montmartre restaurant. The fact that he remembered me (unannounced in my intention to review the restaurant) after just one visit a few weeks earlier catches me by surprise.

It’s a rare restaurant that manages to combine the ease of familiarity with inspired cooking and comfortable surroundings. So defines the neighborhood joint, a find as elusive as Congressional comity, but which Montmartre exemplifies.

Since opening its doors in 2001, the French restaurant has been continuously heralded as a bright spot in Capitol Hill’s often dull dining scene thanks to the talent of chef Stephane Lezla and co-owner Christophe Raynal.

The mostly French staff has a way of making you feel special, and service is intuitive without being smothering. During one visit, a dropped napkin was replaced almost before it hit the floor, and a clumsy attempt to steal a piece of my dining companion’s steak was noticed and rescued by the seamless offer of an extra steak knife.

The comfortable 50-seat dining room is equally welcoming. A small but bustling open kitchen greets guests, and bottles of wine on each table suggestively hint that your meal could be greatly improved by the addition of a glass or three. (Plenty of bottles on the all-French wine list are priced less than $30, making that proposition easy on the wallet.)

The sunny, sponge-painted walls and exposed wood beams call to mind the south of France, while the street signs and artwork evoke the restaurant’s namesake, a Parisian neighborhood known for its bohemian nightlife and thriving artist community.

If the native staff and authentic décor take you halfway to France, the food finishes the journey.

Building on his prior experience at Georgetown’s Bistro Lepic, Lavandou in Cleveland Park and the now-defunct Provence, Lezla crafts a hearty menu of seasonal dishes and French standbys. Herb-framed country pâté and delightfully garlicky escargots make fantastic first chapters. The snails perfume the table upon arrival with the scent of garlic butter and parsley, and the already-shelled morsels are tender and not the slightest bit rubbery.

Another pleasing start is sautéed oxtail with mushrooms wrapped in a tidy square of crisp phyllo, served over mixed greens. The shredded meat is moist and earthy, its richness cut nicely by the salad’s light vinaigrette.

Missteps are rare, but cream of chestnut soup, hiding a handful of whole chestnuts, is extremely rich and a tad too sweet.

For a lighter start, Montmartre’s salads are elegantly simple. Belgian endive is adorned with bleu cheese, apples and walnuts, and curly chicory is accompanied by tangy goat cheese, a dollop of black olive tapenade and crisp croutons.

Standouts among main dishes, which are divided into meat and fish, include a tender cut of hanger steak, balanced atop roasted fingerling potatoes, shallots and red wine sauce, and braised rabbit leg over truffle-accented pasta.

Another highlight comes in a nod to the Alsatian tradition of choucroute: Braised monkfish is generously topped with crisp bacon and served over a tart tangle of sauerkraut and white wine beurre blanc sauce.

Lunch and dinner offer almost identical menus, with lunch prices being a few dollars softer. Weekend brunch introduces more options including a quiche of the day, eggs Benedict, chicken salad and a delicious omelet folded over tomatoes, capers, cornichons, black olives, garlic and rosemary.

Considering the recent assertion that French women don’t get fat, don’t skip dessert. Iles flotante — a toasted puff of meringue floating in crème anglaise with a sprinkling of almonds — makes a sweet finish, as does the glazed apricot tart with its sturdy crust and plump fruit.

Montmartre continues to carry on its reputation as a reliable neighborhood spot with excellent cooking. I found myself wishing it was in my neighborhood as I left happily fed one evening. Lucky for residents of Capitol Hill, it’s right in your backyard.