In Washington, D.C., a city too often constrained by bureaucratic behavior and an uptight, buttoned-down ambience, there's finally room to blow a little cigar smoke. Les Halles, a new bistro-style steakhouse at the center of federal-financial Washington, is a three-humidor shrine to cigars (the cigar list includes Cuba Aliados, Davidoff, Petrus and Arturo Fuente, priced from $2.50 to $15) and to the once-bustling Parisian market for which it is named.
The airy dining room combines antiqued chic and old wood with high ceilings, brightly painted window frames and expansive views of Pennsylvania Avenue. The sound of boisterous conversation greets you as you take your seat, and if your table is in the cigar-smoking section (a portion of the restaurant equipped with heavy-duty exhaust fans and elevated by five steps above the main dining room), you will also find that Les Halles is a good place for people-watching.
At first, both the jovial waiters and one-page menu may seem a bit transparent--the staff exudes a sort of artificial joie de vivre. However, after looking across at a table of 18 lawyers eagerly passing around a box of El Rey del Mundo Robusto Supremas, getting into the spirit seems like the only logical thing to do. If the waiters are faking it, the patrons aren't.
It's not hard to be caught up in the gustatory fray. The food--especially any beef on the menu--is rich and unsubtle. It's the perfect grub for a cigar smoker's paradise.
Start off with terrine du jour, a slab of pâté large enough for two or three. The homemade, country-style foie gras is spicy and mildly sweet with a dense consistency. The bread served with it, doughy and bland, is inadequate. Sufficiently tasty escargot drip butter and are sharply seasoned with a bit of pepper and several cloves of garlic.
Other tempting appetizers include gratinée des Halles (onion soup) and peppery sabodet aux lentilles (warm sausage with lentils). It's possible to order a sampling of several different appetizers, and you'll want to share almost any of the giant first courses with at least one other person.
Before digging into your entrée, it is advisable to smoke a cigar. It won't fill you up, and it will give you enough time to digest and survey the scene. Even the least observant diner can't help noticing that the focus of any meal at Les Halles is beef.
Because this is steak with a French accent (according to the restaurant's ad), the beef at Les Halles isn't aged as long as at top American steakhouses. French-style steak is more provincial; the taste is meatier, the rare cuts less buttery than prime-aged beef.
This results in a filet mignon that still has a little tooth and more taste than usual. Served with béarnaise sauce, this 12-ounce piece of beef is just the right size for one hungry person. On the other hand, the huge New York steak is a cut accented with great smoky, salty elements and firm texture. (Several cuts of beef, including the New York steak, are listed on the menu and accompanied by an asterisk to ward off all but the hungriest individuals. Those with meeker appetites share these massive slabs with a friend.)
The wine list is compact, but well composed. Consistent with the rustic theme of the restaurant, there are several reasonably priced French appellations, all from the Rhône, including a 1990 J. Vidal-Fleury Crozes-Hermitage, $25; E. Guigal, 1989, Côtes Rotie, $60, and Vieux Telegraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 1990, $46. There are also excellent values in French country wines, such as a 1989 Cahors Château Haute Serre, $23.50, and a Bandol Mas de la Rouvière, 1990, $27.50.
Les Halles' dessert offerings are unimaginative. Never mind--you won't have room for the chocolate mousse or crème brûlée. However, if you're in the mood for something sweet, a glass of Taylor Fladgate Vintage 1977, $17, is a great accompaniment to any cigar, and there are other wonderful, rare offerings on the liqueur and brandy menu, including a 1958 Sempé Armagnac, $28.50.
The casual crowd and refreshingly open attitude about cigars make Les Halles the kind of place that could develop into a local hangout. And with cigar smokers already forming a cultish following, Les Halles' cigar-smoking section will surely continue to be the most popular room in the house.
-- Michael Frank
1201 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.Washington
Phone: (202) 347-6848
Lunch: $18 to $30 without wine
Dinner: $25 to $40 without wine