In McLean, Bistro Vivant is indeed alive
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, September 9, 2012
The owners of Bistro Vivant chose the French word for “alive” as a name, and any diner stepping into the new McLean restaurant is sure to feel a pulse in the place.
Escargots aren’t merely warm; the snails sputter in a hot bath of herbed butter, Parmesan and garlic as they make their way from kitchen to table. A broad chalkboard lists the day’s specials in such cheerful script that you can’t help but follow its lead and order seafood cakes or stuffed squash blossoms. Watching over the dining room, energized by ceiling fans, is co-owner Aykan Demiroglu, quick to share a wine trick or make a food suggestion. When I ask him to help me choose between the monkfish and a burger one night, he replies: “Try the steak frites. I’m very proud of it.”
And so it was that I ordered slices of rosy beef glistening from a marinade of olive oil, garlic, rosemary and thyme. Ultimately, the entree was disappointing. A thatch of frozen french fries puts a damper on the dish.
There’s a better restaurant waiting to break out of Bistro Vivant. If I sound like a cheerleader, it’s because McLean, despite its residents’ wealth, doesn’t have many high-quality restaurants going for it. The joke that explains the problem: Too many personal chefs.
Demiroglu has the experience to aim higher with his new roost. The Turkish native is a veteran of the local dining scene, where he has worked in such diverse restaurants as the late Le Paradou, Yannick Cam’s sleek French oasis (now home to Fiola) and Locanda, the much-missed neighborhood Italian retreat on Capitol Hill. Demiroglu’s business partner is another longtime industry figure, Domenico Cornacchia of the Assaggi restaurants in Bethesda and McLean. Their chef at Bistro Vivant, Driss Zahidi, hails from the nearby Evo Bistro.
Go heavy on the hors d’oeuvres. In addition to that crock of tender snails, better for the soft coins of fingerling potato in the assembly, you’ll find a lush, cognac-fueled chicken liver pt
and a pink slab of salmon terrine veined with fresh dill. The fish dish comes with a fluffy green salad with an assertive vinaigrette, a fine foil for the subtle centerpiece. Golden fried baby artichokes make cordial companions, as well. They don’t need the swipe of minted aioli they arrive on, although the sauce is delicious.
Croquettes stuffed with goat cheese, on the other hand, smack more of potato than fromage, and a special of clams and merguez sausage in tomato sauce had none of the verve one might expect.
I’m tempted to tell you to skip the middle of this story: Main dishes sometimes taste as if they were made in another kitchen altogether. A dry pork chop comes with a mustard sauce that plays on mute. Lamb brochette, a frequent special, rests on a gloppy risotto with a dull mint aftertaste. A smart kitchen doesn’t waste a thing, but the cubes of salmon and other fish in those fat seafood cakes suggested I was eating reheated leftovers. The cakes were supposedly flavored with mustard, although that seasoning wasn’t apparent. What was evident was oil oozing from the morel mushrooms scattered alongside.
What kept me motivated beyond appetizers -- which the menu bills, in the traditional French fashion, as entrees -- was one night’s main course of tender veal stew. Sweetened with pearl onions and rounded out with mushrooms, the dish was a classic comfort.
Demiroglu’s passion for wine surfaces on a list that offers almost 30 French selections by the glass, half carafe, full carafe and bottle, with an average bottle price of $43. Greater labels beckon on the reverse side of the menu, and the host is happy to pick out something to suit your taste, but I’m content sipping the house white or red, both Ctes du Rhne from Famille Perrin and each $28 a bottle.
Dessert is the most consistent course. There’s not a banana peel in the bunch. A round of “baked” chocolate mousse has the density and intensity of a good fudge. Creme brulee sports a proper hot and glassy surface that breaks into a cool custard center. Summer is saluted in a shallow dish of imported morello cherries stewed in cinnamon, star anise and orange peel, and a big wedge of white cake, fine and moist, is flattered with fresh peaches and strawberry sorbet.
The tables are bare and set close together. Yet Bistro Vivant is made pleasant for its mature audience with half-curtains in the windows (which help you forget the view of a parking lot) and a wooden divide to separate dining room from bar. Refreshingly, no one has to raise his voice to be heard.
You might not cross the Potomac to eat here, but Bistro Vivant can be the easy answer to “Where do you want to eat, honey?” on your kitchen help’s night off.