Another direction for U Street Corridor gains a generous French bistro
Tom Sietsema, May 2010
Chef Daniel Labonne serves French food in portions that bring to mind Thanksgiving. Here's a tip: Go with an appetite (or anticipate a doggie bag) if you visit his eponymous new restaurant on U Street NW.
Stick earplugs in your pocket or purse, too. Whether upstairs or down, the noise level rivals that of a NASCAR race.
Now that I've dispensed with the nits about noise and portions (I try to follow Miss Piggy's advice: Never eat anything bigger than your head), allow me to share some of the pleasures of the place.
One of them is an airy raft of puff pastry with a well of sweet shredded onions and kalamata olives. Nearly big enough to qualify as an entree, the barge -- er, appetizer -- is beautifully coiffed with silvery marinated anchovies on top and a mustard vinaigrette on the plate. Steak frites always seduce me, too. Labonne partners the inexpensive but tasty cut known as hanger steak with a catcher's mitt of french fries. They look delicious, and they are; I'm tempted to pluck them off their plate even before the server has had a chance to set it down. The only reason I don't is because I'm competing with my companions' fingers. Plus, if I leave them where they are for a bit, the fries soak up the juices of the beef and its red wine sauce. Ketchup need not apply.
Bistro La Bonne is something to cheer in this bohemian part of town. Where else nearby can you get a good steak dinner for $17 or, for just a buck more, a collection of sauteed seafood draped in a creamy champagne sauce? Just as significant, the restaurant gives Labonne his own stage. Name a French neighborhood spot in Washington -- Bistrot du Coin, La Chaumiere, Petits Plats -- and the Martinique native, 36, probably cooked there. "The ultimate goal for a chef," he says, "is to do food the way you like it."
The hub of the action is on the ground floor, dressed up with predictable art posters on brick walls and dominated by a long bar where soccer fans know to gather for live broadcasts of French games. Voyeurs should head upstairs; part of the equally noisy loft on the second floor overlooks the animation below. The service staff, watched over by Cyril Decrozant, a veteran of the fine Bistrot Lepic in Georgetown, proves warm and attentive. Decrozant seems to be everywhere at once, seating guests, opening wine, clearing tables and inquiring how everything is. A dining buddy dubs him "a Jacques of all trades."
Give in to your inner caveman, and go for meat. Labonne makes his own pt from ground pork and veal, which he seasons with sweet spices, serving the indulgence in thick slabs. Chopped raw beef gets racy with the addition of the condiments to the side: Diced shallots, cornichons, capers and parsley lend bite or breeze to the steak tartare.
Long, thin links of spicy sausage, or merguez, are nearly upstaged by the dreamy mashed potatoes and the jewellike cake of chopped tomato, eggplant and onion that round out the entree. The light crunch and subtle sweetness of that ratatouille are a delicate counterpoint to the sausage. Lamb chops leave the grill scored and rosy; their brown gravy, ignited with both black and green peppercorns, pricks the tongue. Labonne also sautes an appealing duck breast, but why was he serving the fowl with sweet potatoes last month? The vegetable is better suited to a winter appetite.
As meaty as this menu is, Bistro La Bonne offers some relatively light alternatives, including a goat-cheese-and-walnut salad and a vegetable tart striped with pesto, both big enough to share. Salmon, shrimp and mussels, gathered in a black casserole with a sauce that brings together wine, cream and notes from the sea, arrives with another vessel containing rice. No ordinary grains, these are flavored with rich fish stock. Mussels are also served open-faced, dappled with an herbed topping of the type used for baked snails. Unfortunately, the cover is soggy and flat. Steamed mussels are better.
This is not food that demands your undivided attention. Rather, it's the kind of cooking that nicely complements date night or a gathering of friends. Bistro La Bonne misses on some important details, however. Its bread is ordinary. Your first and sometimes second choice of wine might be unavailable, and if you're considering a red, be sure to request an ice bucket to chill it when you order an invariably warm-to-the-touch bottle.
I'm a sucker for meringue, which explains my habit of ordering floating island for dessert. A French classic, it showcases a glacier shaped from beaten egg whites and sugar (the island) on a pool of vanilla-bean custard sauce (a sea of sorts). You can also order creme brulee and cherry claflouti, its baked-custard batter similar to that of a pancake, but neither finish is more delicious than that meringue embellished with almond slivers and threads of caramel. The profiteroles come close, however, thanks to their crisp, puffed pastry shells and house-made chocolate sauce.
By the end of a meal on a busy night, my ears hurt. Still, I'm sporting a smile. You might wear one, too, if you knew you were having more of Labonne's cooking tomorrow: Leftovers!