As ubiquitous as Starbucks in the Big Apple, Belgium-based boulangerie/cafe Le Pain Quotidien 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.
This review appeared in the December, 2007 issue of The Washingtonian.