There’s a new French bistro in town, and it’s big on salt. At Le Sel, which means “the salt” in French, smoked salt goes into the onion soup, black salt seasons the scallop crudo, pink salt finds its way into various cocktails, and fleur de sel is a finishing touch. The restaurant, which recently opened in Kimpton’s new Banneker hotel (1315 16th Street NW) just north of Scott Circle.
Chef Laurent Hollaender, a native of Strasbourg, France, developed a menu (full version below) that leans on local, seasonal produce in dishes like a tartine made with “eggplant caviar,” which he compares to a baba ghanoush, topped with minty fava beans. Hollaender accentuates a simple radish salad with fresh peas, pea shoots, and lemon. For summer, there’s an heirloom tomato carpaccio with crushed pistachios and Castelvetrano olives. A grilled peach salad folds goat cheese, buttered pecans, cornbread croutons, raspberries, and figs into field greens with a sherry dressing.
Staples like French onion soup comes with caramelized onions, gratinee Emmental cheese, and a Mid-Atlantic twist; rather than using wine, Hollaender’s recipe calls for local cider. Peaches and apples come from Virginia, eggs hail from Pennsylvania, and heirloom tomatoes are native to Maryland. “If you have great ingredients, you really don’t need much else,” Hollaender says. “We just need to showcase the taste, flavor, and brightness of the food.”
There are plenty of classics associated with indulgence: escargot, steak tartare with smoked oyster mayonnaise, and creme brulee, for example. But Hollaender says moderation is important to his cooking style. “If you use a great butter, you only need an ounce,” he says.
Le Sel is open for dinner to start. A forthcoming breakfast menu includes La Colombe coffee alongside options like bagels and lox with a fine herbs creme fraiche, a basket of bread and pastries with cultured butter and jam, and a bruleed oatmeal with seasonal fruit compote. A rooftop bar dubbed Lady Bird is expected to open later this summer. That venue will have fire pits, lounge seating, and views of the White House and Washington Monument. Downstairs, a long central banquette runs through a dining room with patterned black-and-white tiles on the floor and wall-to-wall windows that open up to the 16th Street NW sidewalk.
“When I sit in the restaurant with a window open and see this menu, it feels like being in Paris,” Hollaender says.