As for me, I have my soup, a pork banh mi, a bottle of kombucha and a head full of resentment. Don’t get me wrong: I’m more than happy with my soup and salad combo. The thick puree of winter squash conceals semi-submerged rounds of Brussels sprouts, their crispness and char providing much-needed contrasts to the sweet, silken soup. The banh mi is expertly proportioned; the thin, crackly baguette from Panorama Baking Co. ferries the succulent, gently spiced pork belly without suffocating it under bread and more bread.
And still I feel like the dude who sits in the CityZen lounge, orders an entree and a glass of tap water and then brags that he’s enjoyed the full Eric Ziebold experience. In other words, you can eat cheaply at La Fromagerie, but you might feel as if you’ve missed the point of Sebastien Tavel’s soothing little oasis for cheese, wine and charcuterie.
As the name suggests, Tavel is a French native who understands the simple indulgence of a slice of fresh baguette smeared with soft, ripened cheese. Re-creating the delights of a French fromagerie in a country that prefers to kill all bacteria, good and bad, with extreme prejudice can be difficult, but Tavel has navigated a course that works.
Since opening in late 2008, La Fromagerie has focused on artisan American cheeses, French wines (bottles from around the globe are available, too) and charcuterie. About two years ago, Tavel added the bistro, allowing him to showcase his skills as a chef, skills he developed in Paris and honed in London, North Carolina and the District (where he worked as sous chef at Poste Moderne Brasserie). Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the bistro allows Tavel to show off his skills as a chef and master ad-libber: He produces everything on his compact, ever-rotating menu in a kitchen equipped with slow cookers and a ventless oven, the kind you typically find at Subway.
Which means you won’t find a grilled 10-ounce gourmet burger — the kind that practically defines the casual, downscale ambitions of Washington dining these days — on Tavel’s menu. Instead, you’ll find sandwiches with more nuance, and considerably less meat. I’d argue that Tavel isn’t interested in serving a giant meat wad on bread. His use of proteins feels more complementary. He never seems to let meaty flavors dominate his sandwiches; instead, they serve as one note among many, all orchestrated for maximum coloration.
I’m thinking specifically of the wild boar meatball sub, in which the porky house-made rounds don’t explode from the flour-dusted ciabatta at first bite. The meatballs are tucked deep into the bread, coated in a butternut-squash sauce and sprinkled with an almond-parsley gremolata and Parmesan. Tavel has essentially re-engineered the classic sandwich, substituting sweeter and earthier flavors for tarter ones, to superb effect. His rabbit “cheese steak” strays further from the original Philly inspiration, but it’s still delicious. Tavel stuffs braised shredded rabbit into the same crusty ciabatta, along with caramelized onions, carrot relish and a smoked mozzarella that perfumes the entire bite. Pair either sandwich with the autumn vegetable salad — a colorful bowl that uses bok choy as its base green — and you’ll eat well.
The only failure I discovered among the sandwiches was the chef’s goat cheese and rainbow chard combination. Had the chevre-heavy sandwich stopped with those two ingredients, I might have found it palatable, but the addition of oyster mushrooms sunk the bite. The roasted ’shrooms were as rubbery as a garden hose. The duck and cherry pate suffered from a similar imbalance: The molded square of meat took country-style pate to a whole new rugged region, where the cold, coarsely ground duck was out there on its own, in desperate need of some warm, Cognac-soaked cherries for company.
Ultimately, I did order a meat-and-cheese plate, but I exercised some self-discipline and contained myself to the three-option board priced at a cheap-eats friendly $15. I couldn’t walk out of the place without sampling Tavel’s house-made goat prosciutto (salty, with the funk of 40,000 years) and lomo (salty and spiced with smoked paprika). I even decided to break the self-imposed rules of this column and select a bottle of Bordeaux (a ripe, chewy, cherry-intensive 2011 Margaux from Chateau les Barraillots), which was priced at $30 on the retail shelves. Add the $15 corkage fee, and I blew my budget big time.
Some rules (and self-restraint) are meant to be broken, particularly at La Fromagerie.