Every town should have a restaurant like Café Renaissance for when you want to feel better. The food may not be the best in Northern Virginia–although it is generally very good–but few places can compete with it for warmth. How can you not like a place where the entire staff, starting with owner Saeed Abtahi, calls every female "lovely lady," not just in greeting but throughout the meal?
The main dining area seats about 40, a smaller one fewer than 20. The walls of the cozy rectangular space are hung with copies of famous paintings from the Renaissance to Renoir. Gold-colored sconces with gilded grape vines hang on the walls. Lace curtains shade the front windows. Flowers and candles adorn each table. Service is warm. The place is thoroughly European and romantic.
The cooking may come from the Mediterranean, but the staff is from scattered parts of the world–an Iranian owner, a Salvadoran who cooks Italian, and a Turk who cooks French. Food is sometimes ambitious but seldom cutting-edge. Garlic, olive oil, cream, wine, and tomatoes are among the most prominent ingredients. But typical of the restaurant's eagerness to please is the announcement at the top of the menu that it will try to make requested special dishes.
Good hot appetizers on the menu are the traditional and garlicky escargots bourguignon; baked oysters with crab in a light cream sauce; crisp fried calamari with a light tomato sauce, garlic, black olives, and onion; traditional French onion soup; and minestrone with white beans and ham. Mussels in a broth of white wine and garlic were tasty but overcooked. One daily special appetizer hadn't been observed in these parts for decades–crab en chemise, a crepe filled with crabmeat. An outstanding cold appetizer was the thinly cut carpaccio of beef tenderloin with a few crumbles of Parmesan and a handful of greens. The mixed green salad is first rate.
Pastas average $12.50 for a full portion, and most are available in half portions as appetizers. One daily special was an appetizer of house-made tagliolini with vodka-cream sauce and smoked salmon that shared the plate with gnocchi with marinara sauce. Although the flavor of the tender, thin noodles could not be faulted, they received more than the few seconds of boiling they needed. Other fine pastas were the linguine with white clam sauce and the miniature ravioli stuffed with eggplant and mushrooms. The risotto primavera was a disappointment–overcooked and underseasoned.
Café Renaissance does a good job with meat dishes–veal scallopine with fresh apples and Calvados-cream sauce; filet mignon in red-wine sauce with shallots; pepper steak with Cognac-cream sauce; calf's liver with shallots and red-wine sauce; chicken breast Français; and sautéed and baked veal sweetbreads with rosemary-and-white-wine sauce. The portions are ample, and the cooking was timed very well.
The star of the seafood offerings was a special of Dover sole served simply with a butter-lemon sauce and cooked to within seconds of perfection. Also good was the grilled Canadian salmon with béarnaise sauce. The tilapia, sautéed with apple and almond, was too gentle a fish for the sauce. One negative note: The same garnish is often served with every dish, whether meat or fish.
Two desserts worth trying are the individual Grand Marnier soufflé and the raspberry tart. The tart, with a layer of custard between the pastry crust and the berries, was large, messy, and good.
The wine list is good and reasonably priced, but it would be better if the vintages of all the wines, not just the few blockbusters on the list, were noted.