O Piquette – where is thy sting?

A version of this article, about a Gascon in Washington DC, is published by the Financial Times.

There are some people who are born to spend their lives happily giving pleasure to their customers in the restaurant trade.

One such is Francis Layrle, a surname so difficult to pronounce that he says immediately ‘just call me Francis’.

He was born in Gascony, home also to that other well-known chef Pierre Koffman, and came to Washington DC to cook for the ambassador in the French Embassy there in the 1970s. He cooked for seven consecutive ambassadors, their families and their guests before his tenure was up. While he was here he became a great friend of Daniel Boulud, the French chef so influential in the US.

Francis is now in charge of La Piquette, a name for rotgut wine, derived from piquer, meaning 'to sting'. The name was chosen specifically by the restaurant’s owners, Bruno Fortina and Cyrille Brenac, who also own Bistrot Lepic and Wine Bar close by, as a means of explaining its lack of pretension. Of which there is not a shred.

The dining room could be in Paris. There are large black-and-white photos along the main wall, one of a corner bistro, another of a welcoming, smiling, quintessentially French patron. The rest of the walls are taken up with blackboards with that day’s menus. An open kitchen on a raised level is flanked by high, poser tables. The furniture is pure wooden bistro style but, thanks to old-fashioned acoustic tiles on the ceiling, the noise level on a very busy Saturday night was not too bad.

Then, leaving you in some doubt as to which country you are in, along comes Francis. I found it difficult to ascertain what his financial stake in this particular restaurant is but I do hope he has one. He fulfils a particularly distinctive role.

I could not help putting Francis in the same frame of professionalism as Jaume Subirós, the charming proprietor of the Almadraba Park Hotel in Roses, north-eastern Spain. Both learnt their trade in the kitchen, skills that they can now put to good use should the need arise. But both have probably, and understandably, grown tired of life in the kitchen and both have realised that they can put their collective knowledge to greater use.

Each therefore fulfils a very distinctive role, acting in between the kitchen and the customer, each with their own field of specialism. And while Subirós’ lies with fish, and everything caught and on offer in his restaurant on the Costa Brava, Francis’s is definitely vegetables and in particular those grown nearby for him by the Amish, pronounced with his still-strong French accent, in nearby Pennsylvania.

All the salad leaves and vegetables that were served with our meal were first class and in particular a salad of mixed leaves that accompanied a first course of a scoop of fresh Amish goats’ cheese on a bed of yellow beetroot. This was sweet and delicious with the piquancy of the perfectly dressed salad leaves providing great finesse. Simple, yet first class.

The large menu reads like that of your all-time favourite bistro, although here vegetables are given their due, not least in a section headed salads. Underneath there is a list of petites assiettes that includes Beausoleil oysters and a salad of Nantucket bay scallops. Main courses include turbot, and Dover sole that Francis tells us comes from Denmark, as well as a classic bourride.

We are in the mood for something heartier. I start with a dish of sweetbreads finished in a madeira sauce that is enhanced by a plethora of wild mushrooms. This makes for a combination that has me wiping the bowl with the good bread provided.

Lapin and linguine at La Piquette, DC

This paves the way for a dish described as lapin en gibelotte, rabbit sautéed in white wine, and because this is the litigation-wary US, the olives are described as ‘w/pits’. But the rabbit is enveloped in cream, white wine and linguini to make a perfect whole and an ideal accompaniment to a bottle of excellent Provençal rosé, a 2018 Domaine de L’Olivette Bandol ($64).

But it is in the dessert section that this bistro really hits the high notes, proof that the entire kitchen brigade has been taught correctly.

I am a great fan of a crème brûlée and as such I am invariably disappointed. Too often the creamy part tends to curdle. Too often the brûlée part is put under the salamander too long ahead of serving to the customer so that it loses its bite. But my main criticism of so many versions is that the proportions of the creamy underbelly to the crisp topping are incorrectly judged. Above all, a crème brûlée must be served in a shallow dish.

Creme brulee at La Piquette, DC

But La Piquette’s version was close to perfect. Served correctly in a shallow, white, dish, the creamy part was well judged and provided a contrast to the crunchy topping that was still warm. With a couple of cannelés, the sweetly chewy Bordeaux pastry, this provided a very French finale to our highly enjoyable meal for which I paid $265 for three, excluding service but including a bottle of 2017 Chinon Les Galuches from Jean Maurice Raffault from an all-French wine list.

Francis's warmth as a host is matched by the aptness of the slogan he has chosen for La Piquette. On a cork on their card, this reads simply ‘Quench & Feed’.

La Piquette 3714 Macomb Street NW, Washington DC 20016; tel +1 202 686 2015

La Piquette restaurant, Washington DC