One-year-old Bastille restaurant is the sleeper among Alexandria's new eateries.
Tucked along the northern edge of Old Town, Bastille offers hearty French food with elegant touches, a cozy atmosphere, plenty of parking and prices low enough for it to be a regular splurge. In the hands of husband-and-wife chefs and owners Christophe Poteaux and Michelle Garbee (he's from France, she's from Missouri), the building that once housed the showroom for Smoot Lumber now conjures up a bit of French countryside and the same pleasant ambience.
The pair once worked at the Watergate Hotel, he as executive chef for the hotel and its restaurant, Aquarelle, she as Aquarelle's pastry chef. "He hired me," Garbee said, explaining how they met.
About a year and a half ago, before they were married, Garbee and Poteaux began looking for a space to open their own restaurant. Given the already flourishing culinary scene in Alexandria -- including Vermilion, Rustico and Cathal Armstrong's Restaurant Eve -- the couple turned their sights south, where the rents were less expensive.
On North Royal Street, Bastille seems far from bustling Old Town. There is a large patio at the front, and the walkway from the street is adorned with pottery and artifacts from the import store next door.
The interior is small and dim, just 50 seats in the whole room, and that's including the stools pulled up to the bar across the back. A dark red banquette lines one wall, small tables are strewn around the wedge-shaped room. One wall is Bordeaux-colored, and dark red curtains frame the open kitchen, putting it on stage. A few photographs of Paris are the main decoration, with a series of paintings of a stern-looking Alice in Wonderland filling the main wall.
There is much to like about Bastille, named for the Parisian prison whose storming and liberation signaled the first victory of the people of Paris in the French Revolution. Poteaux and Garbee said they chose the name because it connotes hope for a better tomorrow.
And they put their money where their stove is. Vegetables are locally grown, organically. Meats come mostly from organic producers who use no hormones and no antibiotics. Only fish that meets Poteaux's high standards is put on the menu.
Poteaux said Bastille is too small to change its entire menu every day, so he always has lots of specials.
The proof is in the flavors, which almost unfailingly remind the diner of how foods are supposed to taste. Even during the summer, when flavorful tomatoes were hard to find, the brilliant red and yellow slices, intermingled with direct-from-Italy buffalo mozzarella, were savory. And the mozzarella was melt-in-your-mouth good.
The two foie gras appetizers, one a slice of foie gras sauteed and served with a poached pear, the other a pate, were as good as anything I have had in France. The sauteed foie gras was flawless, the outside seared, the inside warm and almost liquid.
Salads are of mixed greens that have a variety of tastes: buttery leaf lettuces, slightly bitter baby arugula, crisp curls of frisee. They may be topped with sweet roasted beets or a warmed, breaded round of goat cheese.
The goat cheese also appears in one of Garbee's specialties, a miniature goat cheesecake that is light and still tangy. Roasted pistachio nuts and fresh figs complement this appetizer and others.
Bastille's soups, especially, transport me to France, where hearty soups are a national favorite. One night the soup was squash and mushroom, another night broccoli and carrot; both were lighter than they sounded, and each flavor seemed made for the other.
My only disappointment was the signature dish of shrimp and calamari beignets. Attractively served in a paper cone supported by a twirl of ironwork, the beignets didn't have much flavor and were too heavy for a starter.
There was no such displeasure among main courses: Scallops were perfectly caramelized and set off with basil pesto and sauteed potatoes. Beef fillet medallions were perfectly cooked to medium-rare, sauced with a wine reduction that included porcini and truffles and matched with a Manchego potato cake.
Our neighbors on the banquette sang the praises of the braised lamb shank and the bistro steak (a flavorful hangar steak from the shoulder) and wonderful french fries.
But my favorite dishes came on a Sunday night, when Poteaux re-creates French family dinner. Cassoulet is seldom a dish you will hear described as elegant, but Poteaux's version is, with garlic-infused and ham-flecked white beans topped with duck leg confit, crisped at the last minute, and a mild sausage. Beef bourguignon, the classic stew, was ladled around a mound of mashed potatoes adorned with sauteed spinach; as lovely to look at as to eat.
Portions at Bastille are sized so you won't be tempted to skip dessert, and you shouldn't. The bittersweet chocolate pot de creme is a chocolate lover's heaven, the squash cheesecake is buttery and light, and the walnut cake (though a bit dry) is redolent of this favorite French nut. The best is the small pear tarte Tatin, a buttery delight.
Bastille serves only beer, wine and some European soft drinks. The wine list doesn't have many familiar names on it but has a good assortment of reasonably priced French bottles. Servers aren't expert in discussing the wines, but that shouldn't spoil a quick trip to this French countryside.
--Nancy Lewis (Oct. 25, 2007)