Editors' pick

French Hound

Bistro, French
$$$$ ($25-$34)
'

Editorial Review

Drive into Middleburg along Washington Street at 9 p.m. on a weeknight, and it looks like the sidewalks have been rolled up for hours. But just around a corner in a Federal-style house on South Madison Street, you'll find a lively crowd at a new restaurant, the French Hound.

Chef John-Gustin Birkitt and his wife Marny opened the French-inspired bistro in August in the space formerly occupied by the fine-dining restaurant the Aster, and before that by the Black Coffee Bistro. Birkitt, a native of Leesburg, knew that many area residents don't get home until late, and there aren't many local options for dining, even at fast-food restaurants.

So while the French Hound's regular dining hours end at 9:30 or 10 p.m., the restaurant serves a limited menu for an hour longer. So on a recent Wednesday night, a businessman who had just flown in from California, and another who had just landed from New York, were able to be seated at the tiny bar after 10 p.m. and enjoy a good, hot meal.

In two months, the French Hound has insinuated itself into the fabric of Middleburg. Every table was filled at lunch on a recent Friday, and most diners seemed to know one another; almost everyone who entered stopped at three or four other tables for greetings.

The sleek, contemporary-crafts decor of the Aster has given way to a warm French provincial theme with golden yellow walls accented with fabrics from Provence. French wicker bistro chairs have replaced the upholstered chairs, and there are new banquettes in the small bar and the former wine room. A few French advertising posters grace the walls, along with antique maps and photographs of Paris.

The Birkitts -- he has cooked in Napa Valley at Domaine Chandon and Brix, spent half a year in France in 2003 and most recently cooked at Metro in Charlottesville -- came to the area in hopes of buying the Ashby Inn in Paris, about a half hour away. When that didn't work out, the Birkitts joined with local couple David and Cricket MacDonald to open the French Hound.

The menu includes many French bistro standards, with a few new ideas. One of the most intriguing is the handful of snacks that are a lovely way to start eating while still considering the rest of the menu. There are spicy peanuts, house marinated olives, small pretzels with spicy Dijon mustard, bits of excellent dry salami and tart cornichons (little pickles) and brilliant pink oblong French radishes, peppery but not too hot, served with flakes of sea salt.

More ample starters include a silken pure of white beans, accented with a hint of garlic, served with marinated white anchovies and thinly sliced and buttered toast points. The country pt is coarse and earthy tasting, accompanied by a mustardy celery root salad and a gentle mound of micro greens in a mustard vinaigrette. This dish alone is enough for a light lunch. So, too, is a white puff of goat cheese surrounded by a zesty red pepper pure.

There are also several French-influenced individual pizzas, large enough to share as a starter. The roasted garlic with ratatouille and goat cheese is a good vegetarian meal unto itself.

Main courses are limited to a half dozen. There is steak frites, a grilled flat-iron steak served with perfect-looking french fries, which have little taste. The seared duck breast was cooked as ordered to almost red rare, but the texture of the duck meat is blandly uniform, and it doesn't have much flavor. However, the accompanying sauce and the tiny house-made gnocchi save the dish.

What Birkitt calls a pot-au-feu, but is really a version of paella, showcases spicy chorizo, a robust tomato base and plump fresh shrimp. Even the smaller luncheon portion is a complete meal in a small bowl. Salmon, grilled and placed atop sauted wild mushrooms, and served with pencil-thin asparagus and a vanilla beurre blanc, is a pleasing blend of flavors and textures.

At lunch there are French-style sandwiches, served on long baguettes: ham and cheese, lamb and arugula and pt.

Birkitt's classic French training shines through in the mixed berry tart, a puff pastry topped with pastry cream and an assortment of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. The grilled peaches with Galliano sauce are intense and satisfying.

The French Hound's chocolate torte is simply the best flourless chocolate cake I have ever had. It is intensely chocolate without being cloying; the texture is velvety; it's sweet without being too sweet. You'll find yourself eating the whole slice, even if you vowed you'd only have a taste. I did.

--Nancy Lewis (Sept. 28, 2006)