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 Vive La France at the Sofitel Lafayette Square in Washington D.C.

FrommerLuxuryTravel
Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

There’s a piece of Paris in the heart of Washington D.C., just a block from the White House, and around the corner, appropriately enough, from Lafayette Park. It was early October, still warm enough for outdoor dining, and as we sat in the sunshine on the terrace fronting the Sofitel, watching the parade of pedestrians pass by, for a moment it seemed as if the boulevard before us was not 15th Street N.W. at all, but the Champs Elysées.

The impression persisted inside the 237-room hotel whose deep, high-ceilinged lobby reflects the Art Moderne spirit of the Shoreham Office Building this property used to be. All that remains of the twelve-story structure built in 1928 are the lobby and landmark-status façade with its distinctive vertical bronze panels at the corners and bas relief panels at street level. The rest was razed after it was bought by the Accor Group in 1999 and replaced with a luxury hotel, the company’s first in the nation’s capital. Yet interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon has perpetuated the Art Deco vision that historically has linked France and America in his ample use of marble and mahogany surfaces, colors schemes of purple and red, black and beige, lunettes and a spectacular brass and frosted-glass chandelier, and furnishings that evoke the 1920’s.

The Art Moderne Lobby - click to enlarge
The Art Moderne Lobby

General Manager Denis Dupart before a display of autumnal blooms - click to enlarge
General Manager Denis Dupart before a display of autumnal blooms

It is likely an earlier connection to France played some role in the Accor group’s decision to select this particular locale. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Shoreham Hotel stood on the site. Its owner, Levi P. Morton, was minister to France in the 1880s and the man who accepted the Statue of Liberty from the French government.

In any event, the past and present converge at the Sofitel where French influences abound – in the person of genial general manager Denis Dupart, in the huge tapestry depicting the Place de la Concorde that hangs behind a grand piano in “Le Bar,” in the chic staff uniforms designed by coutier Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, in the framed photographs of Parisian beside Washington landmarks on the walls of corridors and guest rooms, even in the Roger et Gallet toiletries with a fragrance manufactured exclusively for Sofitel guests.

But nowhere is the French connection more pronounced than in Cafe 15, the  gastronomic restaurant named for the street it looks out onto through soaring floor-to-ceiling windows Since the hotel opened in June 2002, the 60-seat dining room, whose décor combines contemporary and Art Deco styles in shades of smoky lavender and gray, has become a choice destination for diners attracted to an ambitious menu created by a three-star Michelin chef.

“Five times a year, Antoine Westermann, who operates the Restaurant Beurehiesel in Strasbourg, comes to Washington to inspire us,” says Philippe Piel, Cafe 15’s youthful and engaging chef. “We present flavors that are his style, no more than three unique flavors in a dish so that they don’t compete with one another. The cuisine is classic French but with a modern trend, a focus on very fresh products. Our sauces are basically stock, reductions, a swirl of butter. The richness comes from quality of products instead of creams.”

Chef Piel - click to enlarge

The Brittany-born Chef Piel has been with the Sofitel brand for a decade, having worked in such diverse locales as England, the Caribbean, Guatemala, Cambodia, China, and Indonesia. “We in Brittany are close to the sea so we like to travel,” he tells us. But apparently he has happily settled down in Washington, D.C. and enjoying the exploration of American foods. “We get fish from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, caviar from Canada, lobster from Maine, rack of lamb from Colorado,” he says. “We even feature cheeses from Sonoma Valley. The products are almost exclusively American, but the ideas are French.”

One of these ideas is Westermann’s signature sautéed frog legs with onion compote-filled ravioli. Another is the excellent roasted stuffed guinea hen breast served with asparagus, chanterelle mushrooms and fava beans in the natural juices of the hen. “Everyone eats chicken so we thought this would be a little different,” Chief Piel told us. “All the ingredients were sautéed in the pan then put in oven. A classic French preparation.”

Our choices from Cafe 15’s accessible, seasonal menu were all classic French preparations, not only sublime to taste but beautiful to behold on plates of frosty glass or pure white Limoges.  The ahi tuna tartar, a delectable disc beneath the heart of the artichoke, was topped with a spray of baby arugula and fennel drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette. A terrific terrine of skate bound in aspic with eggplant and red and yellow peppers, if not for the vivid colors and ring of tomato confit and slices of black olives, could be taken for a layer cake.  A tender, flavorful seared halibut from Alaska, marinated in olive oil and basil was served with seasonal little tomatoes, peppers, and parsley and brightened by a splash of balsamic vinegar. And the succulent beef tenderloin in Diablo sauce came with stuffed zucchini, cherry tomatoes, and thick rectangles of potatoes, of “Pont Neuf” style but Yukon Gold origin.

click to enlarge click to enlarge
click to enlarge click to enlarge

Even the wine list in this definitively French dining room had a goodly Californian representation although we had a full bodied and fruity but not too sweet 1999 Grenache Blanc from the Côte du Rhône village Séguret that paired perfectly with our choices.

“Beer ice cream is one of Chef Westermann’s specialties,” Marc Ledesma, maitre d’ and assistant restaurant manager, told us. “It comes with roasted pear and a brioche that is made like French toast only beer is added to the milk and eggs.” This was but one offering on a dessert menu whose choices included rhubarb tart with strawberry marmalade and strawberry ice cream in balsamic reduction; a chocolate trio of crème brulee with chocolate granitée, white and dark chocolate; and tart citron with grapefruit parfait. How could one go wrong? We opted for the beer brioche and the sweet and sour rhubarb tart to splendidly complete an exceptional meal.   

Marc, a native of Figueras, Catalonia, the birthplace of Salvador Dali, oversees a staff whose members come from the Philippines, Morocco, Guatemala, and India, not to mention France. Diversity marks the Sofitel family; varied backgrounds accentuate the international atmosphere.  

An international staff at Cafe 15 - click to enlarge
An international staff at Cafe 15

“We market the hotel as a little bit of Paris, as a European hotel,” says Erik Grazetti director of Sales and Marketing. “High-level French government officials stay with us when they visit the White House, many foreign journalists. We appeal to an international but also an American crowd. We’ve worked with local theaters which has brought us many celebrity guests. They appreciate the service; it’s very personalized. Employees are trained to welcome guests like they were welcoming people to their own home.”

Home at the Sofitel is in a section that until a decade or so ago had been a rather rundown part of town. “The area was known as Washington’s Wall Street in the 1920s; all the financial institutions were here,” Erik told us. “But in the 1960s, those companies left the area, and through the 70s and 80s, you didn’t come around here at night. But the recovery began in the 1990s as Washington began investing in its own infrastructure.”

Like many American cities, the nation’s capital in these early years of the 21st century is enjoying a renaissance as formerly depressed neighborhoods turn into centers of thriving urbanity. The area surrounding the Sofitel, bustling with commerce and culture, home to embassies and government agencies, upscale shops and restaurants, the Smithsonian and National Theater, certainly counts among them. A few blocks from the hotel is the Women’s Museum, housed in a building that had once been a Masonic Temple but was nearly destroyed during the 1968 civil disorders and subsequently abandoned. Today, after being gutted and refurbished, it showcases an impressive collection of art by women through the ages.

The Women’s Museum is a lovely facility and understandably has become a desirable D.C. locale for weddings. Somehow it came as no surprise to learn out-of-town guests are frequently referred to the hotel in the neighborhood that has also brought new life to an old edifice: the Sofitel Lafayette Square.

Sofitel Lafayette Square
806 15th Street N.W.
Washington, D.C., 20005

Phone: 202-730-8800
web: http://www.sofitel.com and http://www.accorhotels.com

Photos by:  HarveyFrommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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