January 2007: 100 Very Best Restaurants

A plush and gracious French dining room.

No. 46: Cafe 15

Hotel restaurants wishing to avoid the cliché of expensive but blandly generic cuisine usually take one path: hire as big a culinary name as they can afford and mount a publicity campaign. The Sofitel did just that when it launched this contemporary French restaurant, bringing aboard chef/consultant Antoine Westermann (two Michelin stars) and wooing gastronomes with the likes of frog’s-leg lollipops and beer-battered brioche with beer ice cream. Westermann is gone, and with him went some of the restaurant’s cachet. As a result, a lot of people who like really good food have never heard of the place.

The staff understands how to maximize your pleasure without being showy. And even without a famous chef attached to the kitchen, the food is assured and occasionally surprising, with a refinement that doesn’t obscure the often big, countrified flavors. A terrine of green lentils, chicken, and duck is a reminder of the robustness of classic bistro cooking, but it’s so elegantly fashioned and light that it makes a fitting first course. Scallops atop a pool of celery-root purée pair white with white, a monochromatic arrangement that doesn’t hint at the earthy depths on the plate. Fish is a strength; chef Emmanuel Billand doesn’t overwhelm it with a wash of flavors, but he isn’t afraid to experiment. One night’s wild salmon, soft and pink, was ingeniously paired with a lightly creamy cauliflower broth.

Occasionally the kitchen overcooks its meats—veal medallions were a recent victim—and sends out all the excitement of conventional upscale hotel cooking.

Desserts are an unexpected surprise—a rhubarb tart boasts a light, buttery crust, and a chocolate-apricot cake shows how to be rich but not heavy, sweet but not cloying.

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Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.