We dine at Praline roughly every 10 days, so we're exceptionally well-qualified to review it. This restaurant delivers excellent value for fine French bistro fare, provided that you know where to concentrate. We recommend it heartily for consistent and imaginative French cooking at a good price. While Praline is not inexpensive, it delivers great value for the quality and satisfaction that it provides.
If you're planning a visit, be aware that the restaurant menu combines French and American-accented casual fare (generally on the right side of menu) and more authentic French specialties, which change frequently, on the left-hand side of the menu. To fully enjoy the talent of Chef Christian Gautrois, focus on the left side of the menu.
Chef Gautrois, a native of Lyon, is passionate about food. Produce is typically sourced from Virginia's Northern Neck, and Chef Gautrois periodically adds such Gallic delights as veal tongue and tete de frommage (head cheese) to the menu. The moules frites (mussels and French fried potatoes) are excellent, as are such French bistro standards as onion soup, cassoulet and boeuf borguignon. The chef also does a fine job with duck, game, fish and shrimp. Salads and soups are nicely done. Some of the best items on the menu are the appetizer specials (left side of the menu)-- 2 will make a lunch and 2-3 a dinner. Be aware that the menu here changes daily, depending on what is seasonal and on the decision of the chef. Note also that this is a smaller place that tends to close early-- from Monday to Thursday, you are well-advised to be seated by 7.30 or 8 pm, at the latest.
Desserts are baked on the premises, courtesy of Praline's bakery, housed on the restaurant's first floor. They are typically excellent. You can't go wrong with the walnut dacquoise, a house specialty. The lemon cake and tiramisu are also delicious. Oddly, we can't recommend the coffee here-- the teas are generally preferable.
Service here can be bumpy or delightful, so be flexible. Praline is especially crowded at lunch, and service can suffer. We've also encountered bumps on slow nights from Monday-Thursday. That said, the maitre d's, Phillipe and Agnes, are knowledgeable about the menu and very helpful about the day's choices. It is a good strategy to ask to speak to the maitre d' for an overview of what is on offer, and for advice on wine options. Praline's wine list offers a thoughtfully chosen selection of French vintages, including many moderately-priced options.
The best place to sit here is on the umbrella'd outdoor terrace, which offers charm during good weather. The interior seating is most attractive at lunch, when the high-ceilinged atrium provides natural light.
Washington insider story: Praline was founded by a former White House pastry chef and a colleague who cooked at the White House on special occasions. The spouse of the latter is still a sous chef at the White House. The staff of the French Embassy reportedly frequent Praline's bakery for good macarons and pastries.