Gone are the formal service, fancy flowers, and velvet-accented, aubergine decor of Cafe 15 in the Sofitel Lafayette Square. In early February, the hotel restaurant got a makeover, a new menu, and a new name—Ici Urban Bistro—in an attempt to instill a more relaxed vibe and jump on Washington’s booming bistro trend.
Following the model of WestEnd, Brasserie Beck, and Central, the place doesn’t look anything like the rickety, smoky bistros of Paris. The new space is decked out with splashes of red and large canvases of modern art. No more white tablecloths—the tables are dark wood with placemats and red votives, and there’s a communal table that seats eight on high, cushioned chairs.
Chef Philippe Piel might not have the big-name wattage of Central’s Michel Richard or WestEnd’s Eric Ripert, but as chef at Cafe 15, he landed the restaurant on The Washingtonian’s 100 Best Restaurants list in 2007. Piel came to the States to help then-chef/consultant Antoine Westermann open Cafe 15 in 2002—he’d previously worked for Westermann at his three-Michelin-star Le Buerehiesel in Strasbourg, France.
At Ici, he’s sticking to his Breton roots (no fried-chicken-gone-Gallic here): crepes filled with chicken and mushrooms; mijotes, slow-cooked casseroles (Provencale lamb ragout; duck cassoulet) served in cast-iron pots; spinach and goat cheese quiche; and five kinds of French fries, ranging from a classic parsley-flecked version with garlic-mayo to sweet potato fries with Roquefort dip. If you’re in the mood for a bargain coq au vin though, keep walking; prices are just slightly less than they were at Cafe 15 (starters are $8 to $16; entrees range from $18 to $29).
Across the hotel lobby is the elegant Le Bar, which has stayed the same, with plush banquettes and a menu of light fare such as salads, sandwiches, charcuterie, and now, all five varieties of fries from the dining room.