Spike Mendelsohn wants you to know that before he became a reality TV star, and before he started grilling burgers at Good Stuff Eatery and baking pies at We the Pizza, he was a chef with an attachment to French cooking. His passion was initiated in Montreal, where he was born and raised, and was later nurtured at restaurants including Les Crayeres in Reims, France, and Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Napa Valley.
Mendelsohn’s third food concept “allows me to get back to my roots,” says the former “Top Chef” performer. Béarnaise, on the same block as his other ideas on Capitol Hill, is inspired in part by steak frites restaurants he recalls from his younger days: L’Entrecôte Saint-Jean in Montreal (“my favorite place as a kid”) and Le Relais de l’Entrecôte in Paris.
Like the rest of his businesses, this one is a family affair. Sister Micheline Mendelsohn Luhn serves as co-owner of Béarnaise, which opened in June in the space vacated by Thai Roma. The two-story dining room summons Paris with black-and-white tile floors and faux-weathered mirrors, although it’s too tidy to make diners forget they’re in Washington.
Similar to Medium Rare in Cleveland Park, Béarnaise focuses on beef cooked the way you ask and served with french fries, followed by more french fries if you wish. Unlike the competition, the newcomer has a (slightly) larger menu that includes a few more appetizers and desserts, plus main courses including grilled chicken and steamed mussels. Helming the kitchen is Brad Race, 32, a longtime friend of Mendelsohn’s who opened and closed Michel in Tysons Corner as executive sous-chef.
Recent visits have taught me that the robust French onion soup is more convincing than the vichyssoise; entrecote proves a tastier cut than the steak maison (flat-iron); and if you like profiteroles, the generous portion of house-made, frozen-custard-stuffed balls of pastry drizzled with hot chocolate sauce will leaving you smiling (and possibly holding your stomach). Nits: Oysters on the half-shell are scrawny and smack more of brine than of seafood. Order the “spicy” bearnaise only if you like nacho cheese dip. And the three-chocolate mousse does a good job of imitating a Three Musketeers candy bar.
With a menu this brief comes the expectation of fewer flaws like the under-dressed house salad.
The staff at Béarnaise, reminds me that too much attention can be as bad as too little. Every few minutes, someone was interrupting our conversation to pour water into a glass that didn’t need it, ask about food that we hadn’t yet sampled or remove a crumb from the table. “Bon appetit!” one eager puppy had a habit of saying every time he dropped off a dish.
Race met his employer when both men cooked at Le Cirque in Manhattan, which is where Mendelsohn remembers teaching his colleague how to make — he swears this is true — bearnaise.
315 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-450-4800. www.bearnaiserestaurant.com. Two-course steak dinner, $28 to $42.