A French Find in Prince William
A veteran Washington restaurateur puts the city and its dining trends in his rearview mirror
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Youssef Eagle Essakl bought a low-slung, rundown Chinese restaurant in Woodbridge for $330,000 six years ago but didn't reopen the place as his French fantasy until just after Christmas 2007.
Why the long wait?
"I did it all myself!" the Moroccan native tells anyone who bothers to ask and even those customers who don't.
Essakl pulls the linen back from a table at Bistro L'Hermitage and points to the wood surface. "These were doors!" he exclaims in a voice that is at once hushed and commanding. "I cut and stained them."
It turns out the man knows how to sew, too. Hence the curtains over the windows. "The guys are going to hate me," he says, "but the women will love me."
Friends and I are afraid to stare at the cobblestone walls, handsome as they are, because surely there's a story there, too, and the food on the table isn't getting any warmer. Sure enough, Essakl positioned the stones with his very own hands.
If he looks like a suit you've seen before, here's one reason why: Essakl, 42, has worked for nearly 25 years in Washington restaurants, including such biggies as the late 21 Federal downtown and the still-cooking Marcel's in the West End. His resume, which also includes time at different incarnations of the restaurant in the Watergate Hotel, explains the presence of a handful of veteran waiters in the dining room.
"You must look at the bathroom!" he urges us.
We will, we will. But right this moment we're trying to enjoy dinner, okay?
The kitchen makes that easy, with some classic French dishes we're awfully glad to see given that every other restaurant to open in the area these days seems to lean in the direction of Italy (not that there's anything wrong with that).
A gratin of lovely, plump mussels beneath a bubbling cover of Gruyere and Parmesan is sheer pleasure. The dish contains a bit of tomato for tang and a shard of toasted bread for scooping. A bowl of lobster bisque is its peer, tasting deeply of the seafood and garnished with a foamy cap of sherry-laced whipped cream that slowly melts into the soup, enriching each spoonful. Croutons on the surface provide perfect punctuation. "I've never had snails before," a new dining companion whispers to me as the appetizer is set before her. A few bites in, she becomes a convert. Meaty snails swirl with fleshy shiitakes and bits of crisp bacon can be very persuasive.
Even the salads go beyond the same-old. Bibb lettuce is cut into quarters and drizzled with a fine house-made dressing of sour cream and blue cheese mixed with red onion. Sharing its plate are nuts and diced fruit that bow to the season (cranberries and pear last month). In another leafy starter, balsamic-kissed greens and soft diced eggplant occupying a thin round of puff pastry get a crumble of goat cheese. This is a restaurant that sweats the small stuff; even the bread is good.
Who's the chef? we want to know. Now and then, we catch a glimpse of her in the kitchen. Dawn Burkart, 39, didn't open the place with her boss, but she came aboard a month or so later, when his original hire didn't pan out. Essakl and Burkart, a graduate of the local L'Academie de Cuisine, go back to 1994 and the late Palladin restaurant at the Watergate.
The chef's dishes are appealing in their straightforwardness. She doesn't hide behind too many props on the plate or get distracted by trends. She knows that chicken, lightly seasoned and roasted to a glossy turn, doesn't need much more than Brussels sprouts sauteed with shallot butter and hand-cut french fries to make a guest glad to be there. Her fish dishes swim ahead of the pack. Skin-on trout is paired with a creamy risotto inset with crisp waffle chips for contrast. Beautifully cooked red snapper is elevated on soft, tomato-flavored polenta, and the entree is richer for its caper-fueled beurre blanc. Scallops lapped with a truffle-Madeira sauce are a sure thing, too. And if you want to play decadent, there's foie gras.
Occasionally, an underachiever finds its way to the table. A lamb shank nestled in a bowl with string beans looks ready for its close-up, but the meat itself proves unmemorable. Duck has been flabby, dragged down further by fat white beans that could use more cooking time. More often, however, the recipient of a dish here is reluctant to part with it. (You eat with me, you share your food.)
If you are tired of loud, spare urban dining rooms, Bistro L'Hermitage is your refuge, your balm. Even though it's 20 or so miles from downtown Washington, the place feels far, far away. Soft jazz and flickering table lamps foster a romantic air, while the low ceiling and comfortable banquettes add to the room's intimacy. "Welcome home," I overhear Essakl say to diners whom he obviously has pampered in the past at other restaurants. His new clientele reflects the surrounding community; by the owner's count, at least four generals are among the restaurant's regulars.
Desserts are pleasant, although their garnishes give them the appearance of hotel banquet fare. There are lots of out-of-season berries and splashes of sauce on the plates. Lemon tart is respectable; chocolate cake is better. Creme brulee, that old workhorse, gets both the custard and the surface right: the center is cool and silken, while the top is thin, crisp and properly torched.
Before we leave, my companions and I check out the restrooms, hidden behind a curtain of shimmering beads. Just as their decorator suggested, the interiors are a sight to behold, thanks to doors padded in red leather and walls papered in remnants from a Ritz-Carlton supplier. Our proud storyteller knows we're wrapping up the night, but he insists on introducing us to some statuary out front. And did we notice the old-fashioned gaslights in the parking lot? Turns out he got the cast-iron castoffs after a renovation project in Georgetown.
As we pull away from a new favorite, we feel well fed, well watered and curious about one thing: Does the handyman at Bistro L'Hermitage make house calls?