Cafe Saint Ex is possibly the best version of a French bistro DC has to offer. It isn’t a French restaurant but the philosophy is spot on. Rather than a Disneyified reproduction of what we think a Parisian cafe looks like (floors tiled just so, a certain style of rickety wooden chairs), Cafe Saint Ex does exactly what a bistro should: it takes the best elements of the neighborhood, merges them with hospitality, warmth, and character and creates a space where locals and newbies comingle easily. The result is a unique mix of incongruous yet, in this space, still harmonious elements: local, hip, comfortable.
The decor’s art deco travel theme is interesting but ultimiately fades to the background for anyone with a passing interest in people watching. The crowds here (and there are crowds) are always worth a little extra attention. There are certain restaurants in DC that remind you that even if the country is in a recession, this city is not as much. Cafe Saint Ex is near the top of the list. Even on this damp summer Wednesday night, the bar was standing room only. This is nothing compared to the crowd you will meet on a weekend venture, where the revelers are elbow-to-beer glass upstairs and the basement air is thick with body heat, flirtation, and a thumping bass from the DJ. Stop by when things are in full swing and it’s kind of like walking into someone’s mouth.
On a recent dinner with Babe-B-Q, I had expected to get to the restaurant early to sip a little red wine at the bar, pretend to read , and take in the crowds. But luck was on my side: we ran into each other on the metro and shared an umbrella down a wet sidewalk into the restaurant.
Details on food after the jump!
Seated near the bay window, Babe-B-Q and I caught up on work and friends over sparkling wine, remembering to thumb through the menu only when our ever-patient waitress appeared to check in on us. The Cafe Saint Ex menu is straightforward American-style food. The Eco Friendly Foods pork chop with crispy potatoes beckoned, as did the Alaskan sable fish on a sweet corncake. In the end, we both decided to keep the calories in alcohol form and go light on dinner.
Neither of us could resist the freshly prepared watermelon gazpacho, which arrived humming with vibrant color. Served with a dollop of pepper creme fraiche, the soup was a satisfying blend of spicy, sweet, and cool.
I kept the vibrant color theme going with my second course, a tuna crudo topped with glistening microgreens and reclining on an amber swath of whole grain mustard, the three working together for a dynamic flavor combination of savory, silky, cool, and clean.
Babe-B-Q opted for the shrimp and grits, which arrived perfectly pink with a slight char on a bed of rich grains. The sweet potato fries we split (so much for being calorie conscious) might have been the only let down – a little limp and greasy, they are not the best in DC. (That award, BTW, goes to the Argonaut).
Service at Saint Ex was no slouch. Despite the busy floor and our tendency to chatter and forget to check the menu, our waitress never hurried us along or made us feel rushed. She had a magical way of appearing just when we needed a refill. All in all, just about perfect in every way. It makes me wish I lived closer to U St, so I could become one of her – and the restaurant’s – regulars.