During the '80's and part of the '90's Washington arguably had two great restaurants that towered over all others: Jean Louis at the Watergate and Le Pavilion on Connecticut Avenue at L street. Of course Jean Louis left D. C. for New York and Vegas and sadly has now passed away. Le Pavilion was owned, in part I believe, by its chef Yannick Cam. It too closed a number of years ago after a sterling run that challenged New York and Chicago's Le Francais for some of the best French food in America. It also challenged for pricing since a meal for two could easily run $300 or more. Fifteen years ago. After it closed the incredible wine cellar was sold to the Inn at Little Washington, a restaurant not that dissimilar in style or reputation to Yannick's Le Pavilion.
Over the years he has been at several restaurants not staying long at any of them. For the past year or so he has been at Great Falls' Le Relais.
Much of what he is preparing and serving there is the equal of Le Pavilion but at fairer prices.
Le Relais is in a shopping center at the junction of 193 and route 7. It's actually only a couple of miles from its chief rival L'Auberge Chez Francois. Unlike L'Auberge there is no magic when you pull into this strip shopping center parking lot. Nondescript, there's just nothing special about it. The front of the restaurant is actually fairly narrow and it seems much smaller than it is.
When you walk in it is only then that you realize this is something special. The overall feeling is of a refined upscale dining experience in a room that, with the lights dim after sunset, is quite romantic. Outside is a patio with tables that back to the woods.
The restaurant also has an interesting bar with a few tables and nightly specials that are astonishingly reasonable.
This past Saturday a special of Lobster Navarin brought back distinct memories of Le Pavilion. this was his signature appetizer there. At $19.00 this is a wonderful appetizer, in fact what I would call a great dish and well worth its price. Lobster bisque, which was a light interpretation, was also exemplery. For a second course we chose risotto with salsify and pan roasted shrimp ($14.00) which was flavored with truffle oil.
The flavor was superb. The risotto itself was excellent, almost the equal of what one would find in the best restauants in Alba.
At Le Pavilion the signature entree was a rack of lamb. At Le Relais this is still available. Served with roasted potatoes, artichoke and lamb jus this is just absolutely delicious ($29.00). A breast of duck stuffed with piquillo pepper, juniper berry sauce and flavored with a puree of foie gras was sublime.
The highpoint, however, were the desserts. An apple tarte with vanilla ice cream was extraordinary. A house special which incorporated candied orange peel in the house made ice cream along with a fruit tart was, just outstanding. I'd like to go into more detail about this but I just didn't take notes. But it was easily the equal of any dessert at Citronelle.
In fact this is the restaurant that would be most like Le Relais with Yannick Cam: Citronelle.
Yannick Cam is back. Big time. This is one of the best restaurants in the entire Washington area. Sooner or later Tom Sietsema is going to stop writing about obscure sushi places in nondescript shopping centers in Herndon and start writing about serious restaurant swith world class chefs in nondescript shopping centers in Great Falls. When that happens you won't get in the door without a reservation a month in advance. As it is, now for a reservation on a friday or saturday you must make it at least a week in advance. But at some point the Post will note that Yannick Cam is back. Go now.