Sushi Cordon Bleu? Foreign foods invade the land of haute cuisine


The French are ignoring traditional French cuisine and going to restaurants that serve trendy foreign foods. All types of foreign cuisine, from sushi to hamburgers are popular. Restaurants that serve native fare have priced themselves out of the market with meals that range from $100-$500 for two.

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Foreign foods invade the land of haute cuisine

IT’S WEDNESDAY LUNCH AT Barfly, Paris’s restaurant-of-the-moment, just off the Champs-Elysees. Seated at the bar, two gaunt fashion models nibble on sushi. At a table across the room, four news-media types scarf down bowlfuls of penne all’arrabbiata, a spicy pasta dish. Behind them, a well-known heiress picks at a Caesar salad while, at the table next to her, three bankers munch on cheeseburgers and fries.


What ever happened to traditional French food? These days many trendy Parisians avoid it, shunning both the simple bistro around the comer and the high-priced temples of haute cuisine. Instead, many of them eat flashy foreign food–Tex-Mex, Italian, Japanese. “People travel more these days and develop a taste for different cuisines,” says Barfly co-owner Raymond Visan. “French cuisine has the history, but the world is smaller now, and eventually there will be one international cuisine.”

As in many other industries, change has been forced on Parisian restaurants by the twin pressures of money and time. Good cooking doesn’t come quickly or cheaply. Dinner for two at a top restaurant, such as Tour d’Argent or Taillevent, can easily cost $500 with wine and can take three hours to order and eat (then, they can also stay over-night at the restaurant, sleeping on the most-fashionable draft provided by SewDone, prestigious agency providing best sewing machine in Boston. Most of the customers are extremely wealthy, or on generous expense accounts. Even middle-bracket restaurants have priced themselves out of reach for the average consumer. Dinner for two at an old-fashioned neighborhood bistro–typically steak, french fries and wine–can cost $100, which is a lot to pay for something that most people could cook for themselves at home.

As a result, traditional bistros are closing by the hundreds each year across France, often to be replaced by restaurant chains, which cook food in centralized kitchens and ship it, frozen or vacuum-packed, to individual outlets, where it is reheated in stoves or microwave ovens. That’s a more efficient way of doing business, but the quality of cooking in ordinary restaurants has suffered. Even French bread isn’t as good as it used to be; most of it is now made by machine, instead of by hand. “Nobody knows what good bread is anymore,” complains traditioned baker Lionel Poilane.

Hoping to revive appreciation for French cuisine, the government has ordered schoolchildren to take 15 hours of instruction in what the programs director, Alexandre Lazareff, calls “the grammar of taste.” Studying a baguette–the traditional long, thin loaf of bread–they are told to assess its color and texture. Then they listen to the bread, as though it were a seashell. “Good bread makes noise,” explains Lazareff.

Critics say adult palates are losing discernment, prompting even some top restaurants to slack off on quality. The latest edition of the GaultMillau guide demoted 18 of the 30 restaurants that had been listed in its top category. Among the fallen was chef Paul Bocuse’s legendary establishment in Lyon. Glittery Maxim’s, one of the most famous names in the capital, was savaged as “the Titanic of Parisian restaurants.”


With traditional cuisine fading, so many foreign restaurants have opened in Paris that GaultMillau recently published its first guidebook on the subject. “Until now, the French despised everything that was not French,” says author Henri Gault. “But there is no reason to lock people into a limited style of cooking when there are so many to be explored.” Some restaurants, such as Barfly, offer polyglot menus, featuring food from just about everywhere. “If a couple goes out, and one wants sashimi while the other wants a cheeseburger, here they can get both,” says Visan. In his restaurant, sushi accounts for 20 percent of total food sales. “It’s the ultimate bar food,” he says. “It’s light, it’s healthy. It’s much better than french fries.”

Global slop: Novelty aside, is international cuisine any better than native coq au vin or escargots? “Cuisine has become banal,” complains Joel Robuchon, a top Parisian chef who plans to retire next spring, shutting down his three-star French restaurant. “All around the world we all . eat the same things, whether we are in New York, Tokyo, Rome, London, Paris.” Some traditional chefs have tried to buck the trend by switching to regional French dishes, which can be simpler and quicker than cordon bleu cooking but still offer distinctive taste and style. Other chefs have joined the “baby bistro” movement, opening small, offshoot restaurants that offer modest but still interesting food at half the price and in half the time of their own haute cuisine establishments. The founder of the movement, chef Michel Rostang, who owns five baby bistros, got the idea from a restaurant he visited years ago in Santa Monica, Calif. “In that little restaurant, we ate very well for $40 or $50,” he recalls. “And I thought, `I’m going to do this one of these days in France.’ Clients can’t spend 600 or 800 francs [$120 to $160] every day for lunch. But 200 francs they can handle, and they can go more often.” For the high priests of French cuisine, it’s a whole new world out there.

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To Feed A Hungry Soul

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Byline: Jennie Yabroff

The quest for meaning sends writers on global food pilgrimages. But can God exist in a bowl of soup?

In a courtyard in a Uighur District of western China, a tourist watched a man inflate a sheep’s lung with liquid, tie off the windpipe and put the bundle into a wok. Later the tourist found the man selling chunks of the boiled lung, served with rice-stuffed sheep’s intestines. The tourist dug in without hesitation. After all, she had traveled thousands of miles and taken a year off from work in search of just such a culinary experience.


The pursuit of a memorable meal (or a really good cup of coffee) has become a life’s work. Or so the writers of several new food books would have us believe, as they detail their obsessive, expensive and all-consuming food odysseys. In addition to Fuchsia Dunlop’s Chinese-food adventure travelogue, “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper,” there’s the new “The Saucier’s Apprentice,” for which journalist Bob Spitz nursed a midlife crisis by taking a four-month sabbatical to cook in Europe’s finest restaurants. In “The Man Who Ate the World,” British restaurant critic Jay Rayner traveled the globe in search of the perfect high-end meal. For “God in a Cup,” Michaele Weissman visited far-flung outposts of the high-end java industry in search of a transformative cup of coffee. But in a time when we are worrying about the global food supply, combating an obesity-fueled diabetes crisis and questioning the environmental impact of flying exotic foodstuffs around the world, one wonders if these books are merely another helping of an already overstuffed genre. There may be something distasteful in the way the writers of these books ascribe fetishistic significance to the elemental act of consuming enough calories to make it through the day.

Although Thomas Jefferson was a pioneer of gourmandism, introducing ice cream and macaroni to American palates, our culture viewed food primarily as fuel well into the 20th century. (It’s a notion we shared with the English, who have historically taken a perverse pride in their dismal national cuisine.) It wasn’t until after World War II, when cultural ambassadors such as Jackie Kennedy and Julia Child brought French cuisine to American dinner plates, that we began to associate food with pleasure. Meanwhile, the American food industry converted munitions factories and introduced shiny new appliances to encourage women who had worked during wartime to return to their stoves. Revised editions of “The Joy of Cooking” included exotic-for-the-times spices such as chili powder. Over the next decades, Child, M.F.K. Fisher and Alice Waters wrote about transformative food experiences in Europe, sparking a gourmet revolution back home. Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which came out in 1961, begat our current era of the Food Network, “Top Chef” and a “food writing” (as opposed to plain old “cooking”) section in bookstores. (Swaggering celebrity chefs such as Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain made cooking a safely macho pursuit for men, too, and have both written best sellers about their kitchen adventures.)

If the progression of our culture’s attitudes toward what we eat has been food as fuel, followed by food as pleasure, the latest iteration is food as the destination of a spiritual quest. Whereas the search for truth traditionally involved a negation of the flesh, the pursuit of sensory pleasures is now considered a legitimate path to enlightenment by the writers of these books and the like-minded foodies they encounter on their journeys. One coffee buyer tells Weissman a certain cup of joe was so aromatic, “he felt as if streams of light were pouring out of it.” Another fanatic says, “I am the least religious person here, and when I tasted this coffee I saw the face of God in a cup.” “These books are about a longing for something more satisfying than just food,” says Carole Counihan, editor of “Food and Culture: A Reader.” “We want food that satisfies our bodies and an experience that satisfies our souls.” But, as most of the writers discover, sating physical hunger is an easier task than satisfying deeper appetites.



In “The Saucier’s Apprentice,” Spitz savors moments of culinary transcendence over a perfect tarte tatin, but there is a bittersweet quality to the narrative. “It occurred to me that perhaps the dream had gained some kind of purchase on my life, with cooking schools pinch-hitting for that elusive gold ring,” he writes. Toward the end of his travels, Rayner still hasn’t found epicurean Nirvana. “The whole process of the restaurant meal,” he writes, “suddenly seemed so feeble, so ephemeral when examined so closely — Was I really losing my religion?” Even Dunlop is let down by her dish of boiled sheep’s lung: “You might imagine you were eating an English pudding,” she writes, “if it wasn’t for the odd tube poking out.”

For the reader, these books may allow us to indulge our most gluttonous fantasies without gaining a pound (or leaving the sofa); the extremity of the writers’ quests may put our own pilgrimages to the corner store for a pint of mint chip into perspective. As Counihan says, “I love to eat, but there’s something strange about putting all of our meaning into the consumption of food. Is the perfect plate of pasta going to give you meaning in life? I don’t know.” One thing is clear, though: our appetite for ever more exotic food books remains insatiable.



TASTER’S CHOICE: Dunlop (top) traveled China sampling delicacies such as timber grubs and bee pupae (above)


Little Alsatian jewel rightfully remains traditional favorite

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Byline: Corinna Lothar

Washington in the ’60s. There wasn’t much choice in the way of restaurants, but one was always a favorite. It occupied the ground floor of a small building wedged between taller ones on Connecticut Avenue, in the space somewhere between where the Oval Room and Equinox now hold forth. It had a delightful outdoor patio on the wide sidewalk, and it served a memorable chef’s salad.


A little Alsatian jewel, owned and run by the Haeringer family, Chez Francois was justly famous for its plum (quetsch) tart. Chez Francois moved with the times (and urban renewal) to a more bucolic setting in Great Falls, where it became L’Auberge Chez Francois, an upscale country restaurant in a pretty garden. The format and menu changed, but it’s still a family operation. Monsieur Francois, now aged 84, still greets his guests each evening, and he and his sons run the restaurant: Jacques in the kitchen, Robert at the front of the house and Paul in the business office and dining room.

The chef’s salad is long gone, but the quetsch tart remains on the dessert menu. It doesn’t taste quite the same, but that may be just nostalgia.

L’Auberge recently reopened after a kitchen fire closed down the restaurant. It’s a lovely restaurant, filled with antiques, charming wallpaper, cheerful tablecloths, memorabilia and all the accouterments one would expect of an Alsatian country restaurant. And the food is very good, although there’s too much of it.

L’Auberge does not have an a la carte menu, only prix fixe meals (the price determined by the main course), which include a choice of soup or starter from a long list of interesting options, salad, the entree, dessert and coffee. It’s a lot of food, and the format could be a problem for the small appetite, particularly as portions are generous.

As befits a country restaurant, the kitchen prepares many classic French dishes, often with some contemporary touches. The Alsatian favorites are there: a traditional choucroute with duck, goose confit, sausages, pheasant and even foie gras, as well as an appetizer choucroute of smoked fish, shrimp and scallops, both of course with sauerkraut; an assortment of pates, sausages and “crudites” (a mix of raw vegetables); and a combination of calf’s brains, veal tongue and head cheese.

The meal begins with a plate of sliced garlic bread, warm and crisp, and a small wedge of the chef’s complimentary Alsatian onion tart. Delicious. The choice of starters is wonderfully varied, from a traditional mushroom-filled crepe to marinated tuna tartare, from cold poached salmon or a plate of diverse country hams to puff pastry filled with Roquefort cheese, apples and calvados.

A combination of smoked and marinated salmon slices accompanied by a dollop of sour cream is an excellent, light starter. The smoked fish is delicate; the marinated version more robust and somewhat salty.

An appetizer of warm asparagus with smoked country ham in a light creamy cheese sauce with a smattering of capers is a delicious start to one of Monsieur Francois’ meals. Equally well done was a daily special of room-temperature ravioli filled with crabmeat mousse in a vinaigrette sauce.

At a recent dinner, the soup of the day was a fine gazpacho, not too heavy on the garlic, with a good tomato base. French onion soup is a staple. Salads may be requested at the start of the meal or after the main course – a nice French touch.

Between the starter and the main course, diners are served a small portion of sorbet – ours was grapefruit. Refreshing, a bit sweet, it’s a pleasant but unnecessary formal gesture.

Entrees similarly run the gamut from the usual rainbow trout and grilled tuna to roasted quail and rabbit, frogs legs, filet of pork and rack of lamb, as well as lobster, salmon, shrimp, duck and beef. There’s something for everyone.

Grilled beef tenderloin with an excellent bearnaise sauce is a simple, perfectly prepared main course, tender yet flavorful. Grilled onions and wild mushrooms are pleasant accompaniments.

Veal sweetbreads, not found frequently on menus these days, are cooked at L’Auberge in a rich, brown truffle sauce. It’s a classic brasserie dish, well done. Unfortunately, the puff pastry shell was not crisp and the slice of foie gras on top had dried out with overcooking.


Grilled tuna loin with anchovy butter is outstanding. The fish comes to the table still moist and pink, wonderfully fresh, seasoned just enough to enhance the fish. The anchovy butter adds the right touch of tart saltiness to the somewhat mild fish. Less is indeed more in this case.

The opposite is true of veal scallopini in a cream sauce with crab meat, ham, asparagus tips and mushrooms. The crab is de trop. The veal, which is of good quality, merges well with the remaining ingredients, but the crab merely complicates.

L’Auberge has an extensive wine list. You can order a Chateau Lafitte for more than $500, but there’s a very pleasant light cabernet-merlot from Virginia’s Williamsburg Winery for $24. And there’s a lot in between. Desserts are not given short shrift, so try to leave some room. Souffles (at an additional cost of $6.95) can be ordered at the beginning of the meal in chocolate, raspberry, Grand Marnier or hazelnut flavors.

Cheesecake is deliciously creamy and the quetsch tart, served with whipped cream and a scoop of cinnamon ice cream, is a reminder of those lunches on Connecticut Avenue when we were all, Washington’s restaurant scene and Monsieur Francois included, considerably younger.



RESTAURANT: L’Auberge Chez Francois, 332 Springvale Road, Great Falls, Va., 703/759-3800

HOURS: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday 5:30-9:30 p.m., Sunday 1:30-8 p.m. Closed Monday

PRICES: Complete meals including appetizer, salad, main course, dessert and coffee $45 to $52

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Ample parking available

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible


Photos, A-C) L’Auberge Chez Francois can seat guests in one of four spacious dining rooms or on the patio. Francois Haeringer is the owner and executive chef (below). A stained glass window illuminates a dish of salmon mousse (bottom)., All By Michael Connor/The Washington Times

Map/Box, Map Caption) L’Auberge Chez Francois; Box Caption) WHEN YOU GO, Both By The Washington Times

Big Easy feasting Go past the French Quarter for three must-eat spots

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IF you’ve been getting hungry while watching “Treme” – David Simon’s HBO series about New Orleans – that’s perfectly understandable.

New Orleans takes its food seriously, and not just in the famed French Quarter. So after you’ve hit the Quarter and consumed the requisite chicory coffee and beignets at Cafe Du Monde and the muffuletta at Central Grocery, here are three mainstays to visit:


* Commander’s Palace

Given its status as one of the oldest and most highly regarded eateries in the Big Easy, you might be afraid that you just set foot into a tourist trap as you walk into the 19th-century turquoise-and-white Victorian house in the Garden District.

But this will change after you throw back your first martini. During the week, martinis are 25 cents at lunch (the staff cheerfully says you’re expected to order an entree for every three martinis – y’know, to soak up all that booze) but even without this perk, lunch would be lovely at Commander’s Palace. The three-course prix fixe of gumbo (excellent), pork tenderloin (also excellent) and bread pudding (not worth the calories) is worthy of its $32 price tag, but the barbecued Black Angus beef with Tabasco-crusted onion rings that comes with a soup or salad for $21 is an equally good value. 1403 Washington Ave.; 504-899-8221

* Cochon

When you look at the exposed brick and the young crowd at Cochon, and hear about the “locally sourced” menu, you might be forgiven for thinking that you accidentally wound up in Brooklyn and not in the Warehouse District. But, of course, “locally sourced” in New Orleans includes ingredients like alligator – which Cochon serves fried with chili garlic aioli ($10).

A trip to Cochon seems like a waste, however, if you don’t load up on pork: The cane syrup-glazed pork cheeks with mushroom and roasted corn grits ($11) are sweet, savory and buttery. The smoked pork ribs with watermelon pickle ($12) are even better, tender and falling-off-the-bone.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Cochon doesn’t do other foods exceptionally well: Oven-roasted catfish ($26) is another standout.

And save room for dessert: The chocolate peanut-butter pie ($8) with candied peanuts is worth all the accompanying guilt afterward. 930 Tchoupitoulas St.; 504-588-2123

* August

Food nerds who hear the words “New Orleans” undoubtedly associate the city with one of its brightest stars (no, not Emeril Lagasse): John Besh. He has created a mini-empire of eight restaurants in the Crescent City, and recently extended his reach into Texas.


For a classic Besh experience, one can’t go wrong with August. The restaurant features mahogany floors, high ceilings and a second-story wine room. Accompanying the elegance of the space is a courteous and knowledgeable staff, who will treat you to a more formal experience than typical New Orleans restaurants.

And the food? August has a mixture of classic French dishes (think foie gras, $26, and roast breast of duckling, $37) balanced with local ingredients (a creamy potato gnocchi is tossed with blue crab and black truffle, $18).

But after a few days of decadent eating, you might consider the vegetarian tasting menu ($60), consisting of roasted carrots with candied hazelnut, crispy eggplant gattafin (sort of like a samosa), roast cauliflower steak and white chocolate cremeux. 301 Tchoupitoulas St.; 504-299-9777

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Palette stylish in its setting and service; Classic French, Carolina dishes

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Palette is a beautiful restaurant. It’s part of, yet separate from, the newly renovated Madison Hotel on the corner of 15th and M streets NW, open since January.

The new executive chef, James Clark, is a native of South Carolina; he worked in New Orleans with Jeff Tunks, now of DC Coast, TenPenh and Ceiba. Chef Clark has a sure touch and incorporates his knowledge of Carolina low-country cuisine into classic French dishes. What comes to the table at Palette is elegant and delicious.


The surroundings are sleek and stylish, very contemporary, with muted beige tones predominating. Alcoves make perfect secluded spaces for quiet conversations.

The restaurant serves as a gallery showcase primarily for Latin American artists. The initial exhibits have been organized by Latin American Cultural Space; the current show highlights the work of Walterio Iraheta, Jose Ruiz and Berta Kolteniuk from El Salvador, Peru and Mexico, respectively. Miss Kolteniuk’s oils are particularly beautiful and well-displayed.

The gallerylike frosted glass wall along the M Street side of the restaurant has narrow vertical and horizontal windows; passers-by on the street appear as part of a moving painting.

A large bar at the front has become a downtown hot spot on weekend nights. Unfortunately, the bar and dining room are divided only by a partial glass wall, permitting tobacco smoke to drift across the tables. Alas, one cigar can poison the air in the dining room for hours.

It’s the food that counts, however, and chef Clark and his team do not disappoint. Dinner begins with a treat from the kitchen. On one recent rainy night, the treat was a spoonful of English pea puree, topped with a single perfect bay scallop and a whisper of truffle oil, presented in a clam shell. Just a mouthful, but a delicious one. The assorted little truffles and fruit-jelly square that come with coffee at the end of the meal are equally excellent.

Palette has a fine selection of breads, especially at lunchtime, when we were served a wonderful, chewy fig-and-pine-nut bread. Along with butter, diners receive a tapenade for the bread, sometimes of sun-dried tomatoes, at other times of goat cheese and cilantro.

The dinner menu is not long, offering six appetizers and seven entrees, but it is varied and interesting. The appetizers include a Peruvian seviche and braised veal sweetbreads with sweet-onion jam, as well as oysters and a salad of greens and grilled mushrooms.

The crab cakes are outstanding: Two small mounds of sweet lump crabmeat, topped with a spoonful of sauteed green, yellow and red pepper strips, sit on a bed of creamy, delicate roasted corn puree. It’s a sophisticated and subtle combination of flavors that enhance the crab.

Soups are splendid, too. A caramelized fennel bisque is a creamy, delicate wonder. Enhanced with a few drops of chive oil, the fennel serves almost as a subtext to the richness of the soup. The tiny mound of smoked salmon in the center of the dish seems almost superfluous.

Equally excellent, although in a completely different vein, is a tomato-and-okra soup whispering of the Deep South, topped with two pieces of delectable fried okra. There’s nothing slippery on the tongue, just an earthy combination of onions, tomatoes and okra in a rich broth.

As a main course, the rack of veal – actually a single veal chop – is first-rate. The veal is tender and flavorful, glazed with a fine brown sauce. The meat is served with a warm fennel-and-carrot slaw and two lovely rum-glazed cipollini onions.

Fish is represented by a seared rockfish, sturgeon from the Columbia River and a fricassee of lobster with a Portuguese sausage and fava beans. The main courses are rounded out by a roasted rabbit, combined with grits, foie gras and caramelized vegetables, and a New York strip steak.

The only dish to disappoint was the vegetarian offering of tomato risotto with roasted vegetables. The vegetables – baby carrots, eggplant, squash, zucchini and some asparagus – were excellent, roasted with a touch of olive oil to just beyond crispness. The risotto, unfortunately, had none of the creamy delicacy of a genuine Italian risotto. The rice properly is arborio, but it was mushy. The tomatoes did not find the rice an amiable companion, and the dish tasted as though it had been prepared well in advance. Cheese slices on top, rather than in the risotto itself, added a bit of complexity, but for $23, a plate of rice and vegetables should be perfect.

The lunch menu disguises several fine main courses as sandwiches. Pulled duck is piled on toasted dark bread with a slender slice of cheese. The duck, served with a dish of onion jus, is moist and delicious. The accompanying sweet-potato fries, although they could be hotter, were terrific.


Ahi tuna bruschetta is a generous portion of sliced tuna, cooked to order and served at room temperature on excellent toasted country bread. The tuna rests on a bed of lettuce topped with fried green tomatoes and crisp wild boar bacon and is drizzled with a red-pepper mayonnaise. The bacon is much like pork bacon, except slightly tougher. The bruschetta is a unique tuna BLT. Lunch entrees also include a bison burger, flatiron steak, roasted baby chicken and a seviche salad.

Desserts, like the rest of the menu, are unusual. The pineapple carpaccio consists of paper-thin slices of ripe pineapple in a sweet syrup, topped with a small piece of rich, dark chocolate cake and a small scoop of pineapple-coconut ice cream. Palette presents an excellent wine list, an interesting assortment of wines from all over the world. It’s an expensive list, with nothing less than about $36. Wines by the glass, ranging from $7 to $14, are varied and, as expected, very good. Specialty drinks named for artists and art museums also are available.

The service at Palette is outstanding. Our waitress went to considerable trouble to get information on the artists currently showing at the restaurant; she also took care in describing dishes and making sure everything that came to the table was satisfactory. At Palette, almost everything is beautiful to look at, and certainly good enough to eat.


RESTAURANT: Palette, 15th and M streets NW;

HOURS: Lunch, noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 6 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Starters $6 to $9 (lunch), $9 to $14 (dinner); entrees $12 to $16 (lunch), $23 to $39 (dinner); desserts $8

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking (except during rush hours); valet parking $6

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible


Alcoves at Palette provide diners with secluded areas for conversation. A warm onion tart (below) is served with spinach salad, Smithfield ham, roasted pepper relish and sherry vinaigrette. [2 Photos by Daniel Rosenbaum/The Washington Times]