Temple of Earthly Delights
A new Vienna eatery doesn't offer cutting-edge cuisine -- and that's fine with diners
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, June 11, 2006
We finally know what Patrick Bazin looks like. Having left the historic Occidental restaurant in Washington after a 6 1/2-year run as executive chef -- a job that kept him behind the scenes and away from his audience -- he opened his own place in Vienna in March. Now he's on view, in an exhibition kitchen behind a small "chef's counter" at Bazin's on Church, and can even be seen roaming the dining room when there's a pause in the action.
The difference between working in a sprawling downtown restaurant and a space of his own in the suburbs? "This is much more personal," says Bazin, whose wife, Julie Bazin, a former men's clothier, is general manager. And, from selecting wine to making desserts, "I'm involved in every detail" of the infant business, adds Patrick Bazin, a 43-year-old New Jersey native. As at Occidental, he continues to dish up modern American cooking, though the recipes at Bazin's tend to be less elaborate. As he puts it, "I'm not trying to be a food temple."
Yet the chef isn't dumbing down much of anything, either. His excellent fried oysters, dotted with aioli and served atop creamed spinach and bits of ham, are a reminder of his days downtown, while an entree of seared scallops comes with a polenta cake zipped up with kimchi, Korea's fiery fermented cabbage. Polenta and cabbage salad? The match works just fine in the mouth. And while the wine list is imperfect (hello, spell check!), it has variety, decent prices and some fine labels going for it; the respectable Drylands sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, with its lovely citrus aroma, sells for $24 a bottle.
Bazin's isn't very big, but it's plenty inviting. Early in the evening, the restaurant's broad windows pull in lots of light, and a flat-screen TV behind the granite bar, tuned to the Food Network, sparks an appetite. The room's design is simple: brick walls, green trim, a tilted mirror here, an arched wooden ceiling above your head. Most of the floor is bare, and the windows are free of drapes, details that contribute to the restaurant's noise pollution. The owners hope to minimize the problem with sound-absorbing panels, scheduled to be in place this month. Meanwhile, plan to dine early if you don't want to shout through dinner.
Scrape, scrape, scrape. The man sitting next to me one night is determined not to leave a drop of crab chowder in his bowl. Having sampled the soup myself, I understand his reaction to the appetizer, a very satisfying union of cream, corn, seafood and diced potatoes. And when I overhear an effusive server tell the couple on the other side of me that the spring salad is his favorite first course, I find my-self smiling at the memory of mesclun splashed with an herby vinaigrette and fenced in with endive spears. The composition is made more interesting with julienned green apple, toasted almonds and crumbles of blue cheese. Everything reads well on the menu, and much is to be admired. Thin shavings of roasted portobello mushrooms scattered with pine nuts add up to a fine meatless beginning, and peppery bits of chicken in crisp spring rolls meet a kicky match in a dip of chilies, mango and pineapple.
Bazin and his teammates -- two of his sous chefs from Occidental followed him here -- need to pay a bit closer attention to their cooking times and temperatures, however. Ravioli fattened with pureed potatoes and garnished with sweet bites of lobster is lovely on its own, though when I tried the appetizer, its buttery lobster sauce was cool to the touch. And filet mignon did a great imitation of roast beef -- overcooked and oddly flat roast beef. Two details made that entree palatable: a frame of sweet baby carrots and a fragrant white truffle cream sauce draped over the meat. Some nights, the food comes out of the kitchen as speedily as the sort you order from your car and a speakerphone; if you're not in a rush, be sure to say so from the get-go.
Flounder, fine-grained and delicate in flavor, is even more enticing with a stuffing of sweet crab, a bed of vegetable-flecked basmati rice and a sauce bright with lemon. If roast chicken doesn't break any new ground -- it's merely pleasant -- I very much like the way Bazin dresses the breast, with velvety strips of bell pepper in three colors on top and a base of creamy orzo enriched with a reduction of pan juices. A diner here is tempted to order a main course based on its accompaniments. Buttery leeks and crisp gnocchi lead me to a plate of tender veal, for instance. And a succulent, inches-thick pork chop comes with a drift of pureed sweet potatoes scented with vanilla -- just enough to elevate the starch but not enough to turn it into dessert -- as well as crisp diced apples that pack a vinegary punch.
The neighbors seem thrilled to have a place that falls between fancy and carry-out near their homes. Young as it is, Bazin's developed regulars as soon as its doors opened. One of them is 84-year-old Charlie Nackos of Vienna, who drops by every night he's in town and prefers Budweiser to microbrews. The restaurant doesn't list Budweiser on its menu, but the staff buys a case of the stuff just to make their No. 1 fan happy. That's customer service.
Bazin doesn't skimp on the last course. Instead, he offers eight or so desserts -- a lot for a small shop -- and they run from the simple to the sophisticated. Strawberry shortcake celebrates the fruit with a tender, bun-size biscuit, and whipped cream and blackberries are nicely showcased in a cobbler set off with a scoop of ice cream reminiscent of an old-fashioned orange Creamsicle. Pineapple upside-down cake is a C student in comparison, and dry to boot. Of the more upscale endings, I'm partial to the warm, pudding-like chocolate tart and the decadent peanut butter tart, the latter elegantly displayed on a long white plate with zigzags of chocolate sauce and a dusting of crushed peanut praline.
Those endings make a sweet impression, as do the affable young waiters, the wide-ranging menu and the willingness of the host to buy a loyal guest his suds of choice. Bazin's isn't a food temple; it's something better: an earthbound restaurant that works really hard to make you glad to be there.