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Montmartre Francais Restaurant, 327 7th St., S.E., Washington, D.C. (202) 544-1244 Chalkboard menu: check. Wooden chairs: check. Kitschy French posters: check. Montmartre Francais Restaurant has all the ingredients of a charming French bistro. No wonder; Chef Stephane Lezla and partner Christophe Raynal worked together at Lavandou in Cleveland Park and Bistrot Lepic in Georgetown before opening Montmartre two years ago on Capitol Hill. The bistro fare coming out of Montmartre’s kitchen � dishes like braised rabbit leg with olives and mushrooms or trout with asparagus and red curry sauce � though familiar, can be refreshingly nonformulaic. Meals start off with an inviting basket of bread that is perfectly crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. We polished off our first basket sopping up the butter and garlic left behind after a tasty plate of escargot. Another simple, but satisfying, appetizer is the provincial vegetable soup � a rustic combination of soft tomatoes, carrots, sweet peppers, onions, and cannellini beans in fragrant pesto broth. For a starter with a bit more zing, try gnocchi served with mussels, tomatoes, shaved parmesan, and balsamic syrup. Savory mussels and tangy vinegar turn out to be the ideal counterpoint for warm potato dumplings. Chef Lezla misses the mark, however, with a bland zucchini soup that screams for bolder seasoning to cut through its cream base. Shoehorned into a small, airy space near Eastern Market, Montmartre buzzes with conversation and clinking plates. Lunch entrees range from $12 to $18, while dinner prices peak at $20. Of the entrees, a stuffed guinea hen leg offered at both lunch and dinner is inventive and surprising. So surprising, in fact, we didn’t recognize the dish when it arrived. The bone had been removed and replaced by a luscious mixture of chicken, egg, pistachios, and apricots. The stuffed leg was then cut into three round medallions and served with a ragout of mushrooms and olives. The result tasted delicious, but keep in mind that one guinea leg yields precious little protein. Those with heartier appetites may find more satisfaction with a grilled hangar steak accompanied by superb mashed potatoes or Montmartre’s signature rabbit. The generous portion of rabbit meat is so moist it nearly falls from the bone. Served on a bed of pasta in parmesan cream sauce, it’s the sort of comfort food we look forward to savoring again on a wintry night. Montmartre offers an appealing array of seafood and gratefully does not disguise its fish under heavy sauces. Rather, Lezla frequently brings seafood together with the robust flavors of olives, capers, mushrooms, and spinach. Roast salmon comes matched with swiss chard, tomatoes, capers, and a walnut oil marinade, while tuna gets spiked by shallots, tomatoes, capers, and black olives. Olives also show up unannounced on a plate of saut�ed scallops. The pairing works, though the gelatinous scallops tasted as though they could have stood another 30 seconds in the pan. A better choice is monkfish bathed in anchovy butter and served with potato gratin. The plump pieces of fish were firm and meaty, their delicate sweetness a lovely contrast to the rich, salty sauce. Saying no to dessert at Montmartre may not be an option once you spot the exquisite fruit tart. Why would anyone want to say no when yes gets rewarded with mouthfuls of flaky crust, juicy berries, and a satiny sugar filling? Montmartre’s cheese plate is another good way to end (or even to start) a meal. The plate � three cheese selections, a sliced apple, and a mixed green salad � goes nicely with a glass of Ch�teau Cauley dessert wine. We’d love to see Montmartre do more with wine. The all-French wine list is fairly priced but unexciting, and the selection of wines by the glass is limited. Also, our red wines were consistently served too warm, giving them an overly alcoholic bite. Service can be an unexpected problem at Montmartre. While French restaurants have a reputation for being inattentive, here servers trip over themselves to meet your needs. On an off day, that means having more conversation with your waitstaff than with your companions. Even so, Montmartre has a cheerful, unpretentious atmosphere that makes it a fun spot for French dining. � Vanessa Blum is a reporter at Legal Times and Phillip Dub� is an attorney at D.C.’s Covington & Burling.

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