Named for French author of Le Petit Prince and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Cafe Saint-Ex was born of the owner’s “affection for Europe.” This same affection for European food and atmosphere inspired my visit to the U Street Corridor cafe. The outstandingly delicious food, upbeat yet warm atmosphere and accommodating service set the ideal tone for a cultured night of Yann Tiersen at the nearby 9:30 Club.
The most striking feature of the Saint-Ex experience was the food. The delight is in the details: The butternut squash soup was lightly curried, adding an exotic spicy tinge to the staple winter appetizer. Subtle curry accents also greatly enhanced the (somewhat small) pan roasted Maine lobster. The signature Smith Meadow Farms gourmet burger was grilled to perfection and accompanied by sweet potato fries that elicited unanimous acclaim from the table for their perfectly balanced salt and sugar coating. With more time on my hands it would have been difficult to resist ordering another plate of them for myself, as I had been confined to “borrowing” them from my reluctant friends. The Strube Ranch Waygu top sirloin, accompanied by melt-in-your-mouth Yukon gold potatoes, was tender and succulent.
Their cocktails are creative and zesty such as the pumpkin martini and “ruffled shirt,” the latter containing an invigorating mix of St-Germain, an elderflower liquor, Angostura bitters, sparkling wine and orange flavor. There is also a notably wide selection of bottled beers.
In honor of the namesake’s aviation career, a series of pre-World War II model planes hang from the authentic tin roof, giving the cafe a hip but historic character. But what really makes the atmosphere is the perpetual buzz of enthusiastic bar goers and diners. For a Tuesday night, both the bar and the restaurant were quite busy; my party of five was, according to the hostess, “extremely lucky” to get a table, since reservations are not accepted. In other words, prepare to be turned away or asked to wait, especially on peak evenings.
The service is not consistently friendly or thorough, and several dishes were brought to our table in error. Nonetheless, the staff was professional in accommodating our needs. They were helpful in suggesting alternatives to undesired vegetable sides and responded well to our request for quick service because of the imminent show at 9:30 Club. Prices are not unreasonable given the positive atmosphere and quality of food, and the option to pay a flat rate of $40 for three courses is a nice touch.
Vegetarians should note that there are few meatless choices on the dinner menu, though an excellent vegetarian meal can certainly be put together. No doubt the focus is on cooking and sautéing delicious meats to perfection, and in this mission Cafe Saint-Ex succeeds with flying colors, pardon the pun.