Le Grenier Shines with Low-Key Elegance

French, Not Fussy

French food has a bad rap for being heavy and fussy, full of complicated preparations dripping in rich sauces. Marie Ziar, co-owner with husband Sam of Le Grenier (502 H St. NE), set out to create something different. “I wanted the restaurant and the food to be low key, but very elegant,” she says. Those may seem like conflicting goals, but that is exactly what she has accomplished.

Their vision began when Marie walked into the space. “I fell in love with it,” she says. I wanted to create something that felt like memory.” With the same restraint chef Tierry Sanchez shows in designing seasonal menus every three months, Marie filled the space with thrift shop finds, large bird cages which hang in the front of the restaurant, against faded wallpaper which stretches airily up three stories to the roof. Le Grenier is a comfortable space which feels like a charming interpretation of its name, a French word for “attic.”

Charcuterie et fromages

Opening the schoolbook-like paper menus, we were a bit overwhelmed by our options for the first course. It’s not a matter of too many choices, rather each selection of first plate, salad, cheeses and charcuterie sounds better than the last. With recommendations from our server, and a little explanation of one forgivably indulgent description (the “saffron ocean cocoon,” it turns out, is a fish cake) we ordered, starting the evening with L’assiette des moissons: a plate of meats, pâté and three cheeses.

Appearing on a slate serving tray, the buttery mortadella and herb-crusted sausage were only outshone by the house-made duck pâté. An early indicator of the meal ahead, the pâté managed to be at once wonderfully rich, yet subtle and light. 

Salades et soupes

Crisp baguette, still warm from the oven, accompanied by farm-fresh butter, appeared along with our soup and salads. John’s endives aux fraises had me worried. Appearing a bit “French,” the salad of pale endive and strawberries, creamy with blue cheese dressing, looked heavy. The flavor, however, was perfectly balanced, pairing the nutty greens (“ahn-deeev” our server corrected with a smile), sweet fruit and complex, caramelized shallot against the sharp, rich dairy of the dressing.

I am fiercely proud of my vinaigrettes, but, I was schooled, and quite happily, by the surprisingly tangy-sweet honey balsamic dressing that popped off of Jason’s baby spinach salad.

I tucked into a bowl of the onion soup. If this dish is on a menu, I will order it. La Grenier’s was unexpected. More savory and tannic from red wine than rich from caramelized onion, the cheese was mild, not the expected buttery Provolone or sharp Gruyère. On a cold winter night I’ll still prefer mine rich with beef stock and sweet, syrupy onions, but the flavor was both interesting and delicious, one I would return for.

As for that saffron ocean cocoon? It arrived at the table, a vision of 1970’s French cuisine, the pastry puff filled with a large, round fish cake, surrounded by silky, brown-orange crawfish sauce. The flavors delivered nostalgia for white china and tablecloths. Where the texture of the fish ball lacked delicacy, the crisp pastry and rich sauce compensated nicely.

Entrées

When it came to ordering our main course, the server nearly started a fight, stating confidently that the gros ragout à l’orange, a beef stew, was the best thing on the menu. Ed immediately claimed it. John followed with the leg of lamb, and Jason the hanger steak and frites.

Their entrees arrived, three plates of meat with gravy. Our server’s advice was spot on. Ed’s braised beef stew, elegantly tender, bright with orange and a piney bite of rosemary, was definitely the best dish of the night. The tournéed carrots melted while the Gruyère millet crumbled delicately like sweet, but mild, cornbread.

John’s La Bergerie was the most beautiful plating of the evening. The impossibly tender lamb was piled neatly in the bowl topped with an elegantly simple fan of asparagus. The cardamom sweet potato purée provided a rich, warm counter to the pungent lemongrass, rosemary sauce which held up beautifully against the gamey flavors of the lamb.

Jason’s hanger steak arrived, a Midwesterner’s dream of meat and potatoes. While incredibly flavorful, the hanger steak is a more challenging cook than most cuts of beef, chewy at rare and quickly dry at medium-well. La Grenier’s was flawless, beautifully tender. The fries were thin and crisp, good enough to argue a place in fine cuisine.

Galettes

I strayed from the entrées and ordered the Auvergnate galette, tempted by Roquefort, walnuts and duck paired with a black current glaze. Admittedly, I had no idea what to expect. The only galette I knew was a crisp cake of thinly sliced potatoes, and that did not seem to fit the five offerings on the menu.

What arrived was a beautifully plated buckwheat crèpe. It was thin and delicate, with a light spring, like Ethiopian injera, but more delicate in texture (it is, after all, French). The star of this plate is the breast meat of the Moulard duck, cooked perfectly rare, the rich fat as much a pleasure as the meat. 

Indulgence

Stuffed, but determined, we opened the dessert menu. Beginning with crèpes, sweet, light poached pear, crunchy almonds and nutella encased in tender pastry arrived for Jason. Ed’s were filled with a perfectly warm, complex cardamom-custard sauce, paired with poached peach and elegant custard cream. 

John and I were a bit unimpressed when our plates arrived. John’s bowl of vanilla ice cream with strawberries and raspberry, red currant Melba sauce and my two pastry puffs filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with chocolate sauce seemed underwhelming after the arrival of the crèpes. We were both mistaken.

If anything on the menu perfectly fulfills Marie’s goal of elegant and low key, it is these two desserts. I will always turn down chocolate for fruit, but I will return often for the sauce on the profiteroles, rich and fudgy, silky smooth. Our vanilla ice cream was both decadent with the scent and flavor of whole vanilla bean, and light, not eggy. Following the bold richness of our entrees, the bright, sweet simplicity of John’s fruit and cream demonstrated restraint, something the French seem to do far better than Americans.

A challenge simply met

Marie and her partner Sam were drawn by the challenge of succeeding with something as traditional as French food in a neighborhood as eclectic as H Street. Their vision began when Marie walked into the space. “I fell in love with it,” she says. I wanted to create something that felt like memory.” With the same restraint chef Tierry Sanchez shows in designing seasonal menus every three months, Marie filled the space with thrift shop finds, large bird cages which hang in the front of the restaurant, against faded wallpaper which stretches airily up three stories to the roof. 

Marie and Sam’s restaurant is elegant, in both design and food. In an everyday sort of way. And it feels like you could comfortably eat there that often.

Jonathan Bardzik is a storyteller, demo chef and food writer in Washington, DC. You can find him outside at Eastern Market, each Saturday morning, cooking with local, fresh produce. Find out what Jonathan is cooking by reading his blog www.whatihaventcookedyet.com or his Facebook page of the same name.