Editors' pick

Blue Talon Bistro

$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Nov. 28, 2004

Down-scaling is all the rage in restaurants these days, and chef David Everett provides the latest example, having left the formal Dining Room at Ford's Colony in Williamsburg after 14 years to open a bistro in the city's colonial heart in September.

Farewell, fuss. Hello, sausages.

Blue Talon Bistro takes its name from the purply-blue feet of the Bresse chickens of France, revered for their lineage and flavor. Although the actual product isn't offered on Everett's menu (Bresse chickens are hard to find in the United States), there are still plenty of elements to support a Gallic theme. The high, pressed-tin ceiling and blue and yellow walls are what you'd expect to see in a neighborhood joint in Paris; a flock of ceramic roosters -- mostly gifts from Everett's friends and customers -- adds a country touch here and there. As for the food, it mixes French bistro traditions, including escargots and steak frites, with more contemporary selections, such as fresh pasta with vegetables and a salad of blackened salmon. Fans of the classics will enjoy the list of "plates of the day." Monday features cassoulet, for instance, and Friday, bouillabaisse. Saturday's roasted rabbit would be better if the main ingredient weren't so tough, but I like everything else about it: the light mustard sauce, the colorful vegetables and the heavy black pot in which all the ingredients are nestled.

Depending on your company, your appetite and your credit limit, you can eat little or big, adventurously or not. Everett says that after the formality of Ford's Colony, he wanted to create a restaurant where "you could come in for a meal without having to think about it." With a few exceptions, his recipe works.

Some of the best eating at Blue Talon Bistro is also some of the least expensive. The brandade is perfect for a brisk fall day, a warm whip of salt cod, potatoes and plenty of garlic served in a small pot with slices of crisped bread for scooping. It, too, is less than $8. Of the soups, I'm partial to the vegetable. What looks like a bushel of chopped carrots, potatoes and assorted root vegetables crowds a big white bowl, along with a fine broth. It's an old-fashioned comfort.

From the grill come entrees such as a double-cut pork chop, salmon and tuna, the last of which is a simple pleasure of thickly sliced fish, rare in the center and pleasantly smoky from its time over the fire. It is arranged over crisp haricots verts and flavorful mashed fingerling potatoes. Another crowd-pleaser is the thin, ropy-textured beef steak, topped with a knob of melting butter and (don't even bother resisting) very good french fries wrapped in a paper cone.

Although the restaurant is situated in a prime tourist zone, that hasn't stopped the chef from serving such unusual treats as braised pork belly, which he teams with lentils, sausage and cabbage in a strapping dish that begs for a nip in the air to accompany it.

Depending on your waiter, you can experience solicitous service or next to no service. One night my waiter began the meal by insisting, unhelpfully, that "everything is good" when I asked him for some recommendations; he then provided no water (until prompted), no bread (until the entrees appeared) and little help on the wine (a friend and I walked over to the bar and placed our order there). Amazingly, the same waiter was able to walk past several tables, each occupied by people hoping to catch his eye, and not notice anyone. Twice during one meal. A rare skill, that. Fortunately, he was the only one of his ilk at the otherwise convivial Blue Talon.

The restaurant's French connection is driven home by a video screen behind the bar. Most of the time, what's playing elicits nods of recognition: Who can resist watching a young and vibrant Julia Child rolling out pastry dough or inspecting a whole fish? Even without the sound on, her old TV programs are a joy to eat by. So it came as a shock, on another visit, when someone switched tapes and a pal and I glanced up from our plates to catch a tour of an Asian market. You don't want to see what happens to a bucket of live frogs when seller meets buyer (and thank goodness I was on my second glass of wine when I did).

On that topic, the wine markups are fair and the choices are welcome, though the printed list is a study in frustration. The basics -- vintages and origins -- are mostly missing, with the exception of those wines labeled "serious."

I have a few other quibbles. It would be nice to have the proper tools to extract those garlicky snails from the tight hollows of the dish they're served in, instead of a regular-size fork. And as attractive as the granite tables in the front dining room are, they need covers to minimize the noise in the place.

One neat detail: To the left of the entrance is a window that allows passersby to peer into the kitchen, a vantage point that frames pastry chef Heidi Kindig as she puts the finishing touches on her desserts. They taste as good as they look. The apples in her tarte Tatin are big and soft, set on a pastry that is so thin it's barely there. Another bistro staple, chocolate mousse, is fluffy, intense and not at all cloying, allowing the flavor of dark chocolate to dominate. Indeed, the desserts display a European sensibility in their restrained sweetness. A gingery peach crumble would be improved if warmed through, yet it's still pretty good, garnished with a velvety scoop of cinnamon ice cream. And the pear tart comes with a sweet surprise: vanilla ice cream flecked with black pepper. Fire and ice await in each mouthful.