LA PIQUETTE La Piquette
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La Piquette
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Washington Post
Tom Sietsema, January 22 2014
When Cyril Brenac named his new restaurant La Piquette, his French-speaking friends questioned his judgment.

“Piquette” refers to second-class wine. Why aim low?

“It’s a joke. We’re having fun,” Brenac says. So as not to compete with his more sophisticated dining room in nearby Georgetown, Bistrot Lepic, the restaurateur opened his second place near National Cathedral sans table linens or a long wine list. The informality at La Piquette extends to the menu, which is displayed on chalkboards, and the setting, which finds a garage door separating bistro from patio. Bread shows up in little paper bags stamped “Quench & Feed.”

Introduced in November, La Piquette replaces the fleeting Le Zinc and gives discerning neighbors a reason other than 2 Amys, the always-hopping pizzeria, to head out for dinner. The mood at the newcomer, co-owned by Bruno Fortin, is breezy — sometimes the bistro takes reservations; other times it doesn’t — but the cooking is serious. Heading up the kitchen is Francis Layrle, the Gascony native whose saffron-scented mussel soup and duck with currant jus helped fill seats at the late Bezu in Potomac. Earlier in his career, Layrle cooked at the French Embassy, where he fed seven ambassadors. “We’re from the same part of France,” says Brenac, who bonded with his chef over such childhood memories as foie gras and cassoulet.

Cheery in gold (walls) and red (banquettes), La Piquette is a pleasant place to find yourself for several courses. Yes, it’s noisy, and sure, it’s cramped. But who goes to a bistro for solitude? A few steps up from the main dining room are tall tables that face an open kitchen and an eight-stool bar that dispenses Kir Royales, Pernod and Calvados.

Oysters on the half shell are an encouraging start, as is salmon tartare made creamy with avocado and bright with citrus. Yet another reason to order seafood here: crab tickled with espelette pepper and nestled in Bibb lettuce.

Just when you’re thinking La Piquette isn’t so different from Bistrot Lepic, along comes a rib-sticker to prove otherwise. One of the heartiest first courses (anywhere) could stand in as a full meal. Indeed, Layrle’s chunky soup of duck, beans and carrots brings to mind liquid cassoulet. The dish, known as garbure, is famous in the French region of Béarn, where it originated from the kitchens of peasants. Just before serving, the chef garnishes the bowl with julienned cabbage and garlic and makes it richer with melted prosciutto fat. Keep garbure in mind come the next polar vortex.

Don’t fall for any one dish if you can help it; the menu changes like winter’s weather. Experience at La Piquette has taught me that if I can’t catch whole grilled pompano again, I might make a new favorite of, say, Dover sole, firm and sweet, its butter sauce sparked with capers. “It’s an expensive item,” Layrle says of the imported Dover sole, priced at $45, about double the entree average here. While he wants to keep prices down, “if people ask for it, I’ll do it.” (The Dover sole was extra from a private party.)

Among the handful of repeat finds on the menu has been the rib-eye with french fries, which go fast once they hit the bare table. The rosy steak with its shallot confit proves an easy habit. Sauteed mushrooms should be ordered for the table, although once you taste them, you might not want to share.

I worried for the bistro when I showed up for an early dinner not long ago and found more staff than customers. My concern faded as smiling arrivals packed the place by 7. For such a new restaurant, La Piquette seems to count a lot of regulars.

For the first time in his long career, Layrle is visible to his customers. “I’m a shy person,” he says, “but it’s pleasant” to see the reactions of diners, especially at the end of the night. The look on their faces, he says, is “the best reward.”

My excitement over a fresh place to eat in a part of the city that begs for better options is tempered by occasionally ordinary food: a beautiful but boring beet salad one visit and a mute beef daube (Where are the wine notes? The herbs?) at a subsequent dinner. An overly generous hand with the salt shaker detracted from an otherwise satisfying cassoulet. Still, I was reminded of the power of ambiance the night a companion and I merely picked at the aforementioned beef stew, the backdrop for which was a snow scene to compete with “White Christmas” and visible through the glass garage door.

Even without syrah in my glass, the picture would have been dreamy.

Plan to stay for dessert. The kitchen makes it worth your while. Rice pudding perfumed with cardamom and moist orange “biscuit” cake glazed with kirsch are very good, but if forced to choose one last bite, I’d make it the thin and pretty apple tart delivered with a choice of velvety, house-made pistachio or vanilla ice cream.

La Piquette undersells itself. Yet beneath the bistro’s modesty is the reality: a welcome taste of France in Cleveland Park.

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Times Herald
Chef Spotlight: La Piquette’s Francis Layrle
The former French Embassy toque and longtime friend of Daniel Boulud prepares bistro fare for all.
Carol Ross Joynt, February 26 2014
Once upon a time, the late, lauded chef Jean-Louis Palladin, maestro of the landmark Jean-Louis at the Watergate, said that if Francis Layrle cooked in a restaurant he’d be “number one” in Washington. Layrle’s longtime close friend, Daniel Boulud, also holds his culinary skills in high regard. But Layrle wasn’t free to manage a restaurant kitchen. He already had a day job, and a night job, as chef de cuisine at the French Embassy. His talents were shared only with an elite group—the succession of eight ambassadors he served over 35 years, their wives, and their influential guests.

Fortunately for Washington, the story is different today. Layrle left the embassy in 2006, and cooked here and there. Now you can find him six days a week in La Piquette, a cozy bistro on Macomb Street in the heart of Cleveland Park. His ways with the casual classics on his large chalkboard menu pack in guests on a regular basis. This week he’ll introduce lunch Wednesday through Friday, as well as weekend brunch.

Layrle couldn’t be happier. “I love the neighborhood,” he says. “I know it very well. It is a real neighborhood. It’s a great feeling to see customers talking to each other, table to table. The people here appreciate food.” He warmly recalls an encounter that happened just the other day. “I was opening the restaurant, and a woman drove by, stopped, and said, ‘Thank you for being here.’ I love it.”

Layrle came to Washington in 1973, fresh out of serving his required stint in the French military. Before that he had attended cooking school and worked in kitchens near his native Gascony. A general hand-picked him to cook during his military service, and later told him about the embassy job. Layrle went to Paris, auditioned, and three weeks later began working in the elegant French residence on Kalorama Road.

When he moved to Washington, Layrle met and became close friends with Boulud, who had also just arrived from France. Boulud, now an internationally acclaimed chef, prepared meals for the DC-based French ambassador of the European Commission.“We helped each other out,” says Layrle. They cooked together during their time off, building a bond that remains strong. Layrle still talks often with Boulud, who is slated to open his first Washington restaurant, at CityCenterDC, in June, according to Layrle. “He’s hoping not to have the welcome here that Michel Richard had in New York,” Layrle says. But he’s certain that won’t happen. He also predicts that he and Boulud will do “something together” in the bustling open kitchen at Piquette.

For now, he’s focused on his menu of bistro dishes, which he describes as comfort food in touch with the seasons. Winter stars include cassoulet, duck confit, and Gascony’s signature garbure, a soup of duck confit, cabbage, beans, and prosciutto. He sources pork sausage from a man in West Virginia whose son provided herbs for him at the French Embassy. For spring and summer Layrle is planning lighter fare: chicken with crawfish deglazed in Armagnac, calamari, soft-shell crabs, and crabcakes. “We make ours with lobster mousse inside, and they are crispy on the outside,” he says.

La Piquette is owned by Bruno Fortin and Cyrille Brenac, who also own Bistrot Lepic and Wine Bar, just above Georgetown. Layrle says the trio have known one another for years, including during his post-embassy forays into catering and his more than two years as chef with Potomac’s Bezu, now closed. He advised Fortin and Brenac on La Piquette, and they hired him to run the kitchen when the eatery opened in November. Still, don’t call Layrle “chef.” He doesn’t like the term.

“I never wanted to be a chef,” he says. “I like to cook. I don’t like the term chef. It’s rude. I have a name—Francis.” He laughed when asked about whether to use his last name. “It’s too hard to pronounce.” Together we tried to figure out the phonetic spelling—(La-eer-lyl)—and then he repeated, “Just call me Francis.”

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Times Herald
Joe Yonan, February 3 2014
When I make salad for dinner, it tends to be a one-bowl affair: I toss greens, grains, beans and other vegetables together with their dressing so you can get a taste of just about everything with each forkful. And I dig in forcefully.

Every now and then, though, I’m reminded of the sheer beauty of the composed salad (or, to be all French about it, salade composee) when I see a plate arranged so artfully it could pass for a still life. I got one of those reminders at the new D.C. restaurant La Piquette recently when, for one of the brunch courses, chef Francis Layrle served me a salad of beets, baby leeks, yogurt and walnuts that was a study in soothing simplicity. But it was more than the arrangement that soothed; Layrle had also cooked the leeks in a way that rendered them perfectly tender, with a clarified flavor and a hint of smokiness.

How? He charred them black on the grill, which caused them to steam inside; then he peeled them.

I had to try it at home, especially after I spied a pile of baby leeks for sale by the bunch at the farmers market. I don’t have good ventilation in my new kitchen, though, so rather than pull out the grill pan I charred them under the broiler — my favorite indoor substitute for an outdoor grill. And to give the salad main-course heft (and a little more protein), I turned his lovely swipe of yogurt into a walnut cream, brightened with a little orange zest.

As the snow swirled outside, my dinner companion and I swiped bites of earthy beets and soft leeks through the cream. So civilized. So composed.

Leek, Beet and Orange Salad With Walnut Cream

4 servings

MAKE AHEAD:The walnut cream can be refrigerated for up to 5 days. The roasted beets and charred leeks can be refrigerated for up to 1 week. Let all ingredients come to room temperature before using.

Ingredients
  • 1 pound beets, preferably baby beets, scrubbed and trimmed
  • 1 pound leeks, preferably baby or thin leeks, white and light-green parts
  • 2 medium oranges of your favorite variety
  • 1 cup walnut halves or pieces, toasted (see NOTE)
  • 3/4 cup plain nonfat Greek-style yogurt (may substitute low-fat or regular yogurt)
  • Sea salt
  • 1/4 cup sunflower sprouts or other micro greens, for garnish (optional)

Steps

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

Wrap the beets tightly in aluminum foil and place them on a rimmed baking sheet; roast until tender when pierced with a skewer through the foil, 30 to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the beets. Unwrap; when they are just cool enough to be handled, hold them under a stream of running water and rub off/discard the skins. Cut the beets in half, then into thick slices or chunks. (If you use baby beets, serve them whole or halved.)

Position an oven rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiling element or flame; preheat to broil.

Arrange the leeks in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet; broil until deeply charred all over, turning a few times as necessary. Cool slightly, then peel off/discard the outer charred skin and tops. (If you use medium or large leeks rather than baby or thin ones, cut them in half lengthwise and again into large chunks, if desired. No need to cut baby leeks.)

Use a rasp-style grater to finely grate 2 teaspoons of zest (no pith) from 1 orange into the bowl of a food processor. Use a knife to remove all of the peel and white pith from both oranges, then cut their flesh into thick rounds or chunks, discarding seeds if necessary.

Add 3/4 cup of the walnuts, all of the yogurt and a pinch of salt to the food processor; puree to form a thick walnut cream. Taste, and add salt as needed.

Place a large dollop of the walnut cream at the center of each plate. Arrange the leeks, beets and oranges on and around it. Add dollops of the cream here and there, if desired. Scatter the remaining 1/4 cup of walnuts over the portions. If desired, scatter with sunflower sprouts or other micro greens. Sprinkle the beets and leeks lightly with sea salt, and serve.

NOTE: Toast the nuts in a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat for a few minutes, until fragrant and lightly browned, shaking the pan as needed to avoid scorching.

Nutrition Per serving: 340 calories, 12 g protein, 40 g carbohydrates, 17 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 200 mg sodium, 9 g dietary fiber, 21 g sugar

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