Dining on a Shoestring: Sweetgreen and Le Pain Quotidien
In Georgetown, a green machine and a place where pain is pleasure
Has Georgetown been totally Manhattanized? Maybe not. Clyde’s is still packed, the JFK booth at Billy Martin’s Tavern sees plenty of action, and Maureen Dowd is still considered a celebrity sighting. But from boutiques (New York–based Barneys and Intermix) to culinary spots (Barton Seaver’s sustainable-seafood dining room, Hook, takes its inspiration from Mario Batali’s New York restaurant Esca), the scene is shifting. The latest additions: two fast-casual stops on opposite sides of M Street.
Georgetown undergrads and South Beach Dieters are heading to Sweetgreen, a salad carryout situated in the tiny hut that once housed a branch of the local burger chain Little Tavern. Sweetgreen was opened in August by Nic Jammet, a new Georgetown grad who comes from an old-school restaurant family—his parents owned the Upper East Side landmark La Caravelle.
The place is similar in concept to the choose-your-own greeneries that are the Type-A lunch of choice in Manhattan. (One such New York–based chain, Chop’t, just opened in DC’s Penn Quarter.) You choose the greens (from arugula, mesclun mix, and romaine, for example), the veggie toppings (cucumbers, beets, and more), the cheese, and the “crunch” (candied walnuts and wheat croutons, among others), and the prepster behind the counter tosses it up, then gathers it in a plastic to-go bucket.
There are preset combos, too, from the too-chunky Cobb to the Bondi, an unexpectedly appealing mess of grilled chicken, avocado, hearts of palm, and wasabi peas (the recommended white-balsamic-and-orange-zest dressing is too sweet for it—go for the subtler Champagne vinaigrette).
The best concoction is a deconstructed play on guacamole, its bed of mesclun jazzed up with avocado, red onion, crushed tortilla chips, and cilantro-lime vinaigrette.
Dessert, ironically enough, might be the best reason to get in line. The tangy “sweetflow” frozen yogurt, which tastes like a frozen lassi (a tub of plain yogurt is added to every batch), is miles better than the super-sweet, fake-vanilla swirls found elsewhere. Instead of jimmies or Oreos to mix in, you’ll find chopped mango, shredded coconut, lychee, and granola.
Jammet, who often mans the register, is prone to outbursts of excitement when he sees customers lapping it up: “It’s only 18 calories! No fat!”
No such calorie-counting goes on at Le Pain Quotidien.
As ubiquitous as Starbucks in the Big Apple, the Belgium-based boulangerie/cafe revels in the French Women Don’t Get Fat way of life. At the front takeaway counter, there are wide baguettes and round boules, plus a host of breakfast indulgences: An eggy cheese muffin specked with nutmeg is like a morning version of quiche Lorraine, buttery madeleines are baked in oversize rounds, and a prepackaged Belgian waffle is sweetened with granulated sugar that melts deliciously into the dough.
But this is a place meant for lingering and grazing, whether at the long communal table that dominates the dining room or on a wrought-iron chair on the tree-shaded patio. The tea sandwiches known here as tartines—on triangles of thin wheat bread—might seem a little precious, especially if you’re in the mood for a two-fister jambon beurre on baguette. But the pleasure is in the details. An assertive curried-chicken salad is contrasted with a sweet-tart compote made from fresh and dried cranberries. Honeyed ricotta is flecked with fig. A spread of aged Gruyère comes with three potted mustards. Even the lemonade is made special with a handful of fresh mint sprigs.
Not everything is so transportive. One afternoon, a shredded Cobb salad—which was supposed to come with a vinaigrette scented with Lapsang Souchong, the smoky Chinese tea—arrived undressed. When dressing finally showed up, it was virtually indistinguishable from a standard vinaigrette. A classic lemon tart was done in by a dry crust and a filling as runny as weak crème anglaise. And if you’re looking for a good croissant, keep walking. The plain version lacks buttery character, while the pain au chocolat was haphazardly filled with dried pellets of dark chocolate.
One of the best indulgences comes free on every table. A hunk of the gratis country bread slathered with praline butter and marmalade makes a terrific makeshift PB&J. Sure, you can make the treat at home—a grocery shelf up front holds expensive jams, teas, and nut butters—but camping out here with a bowl of cappuccino takes you on a Euro fantasy that feels far from DC.
3333 M St., NW; 202-337-9338. Open Monday through Friday 11 am to 9 pm, Saturday and Sunday noon to 9.
Dress: Anything goes.
Noise level: Reggae and trance are turned up loud. Hey, it’s a carryout.
Best dishes: Bondi, Guacamole Greens, Chic-P salads; frozen yogurt with mango, pineapple, coconut, and lychee.
Price range: Salads $6 to $9, frozen yogurt $4 to $6.
Le Pain Quotidien ★★
2815 M St., NW; 202-315-5420; lepainquotidien.com. Open Monday through Thursday 7 am to 9 pm, Friday 7 am to 10 pm, Saturday 8 am to 10 pm, Sunday 8 am to 9 pm.
Dress: You’ll see everything from gym gear to work clothes.
Noise level: A chatty din.
Best dishes: Tartines with honeyed ricotta or curried chicken; quiche Lorraine; almond meringue; sugared waffle; cheese muffin; madeleine.
Price range: Pastries $1.95 to $4, tartines $8.95 to $12.95, soups and salads $4.95 to $14.50.
This review appeared in the December, 2007 issue of The Washingtonian.