Tom Sietsema reviews Macon Bistro & Larder in Upper Northwest

On paper, Macon Bistro & Larder has the makings of a hit. The upstart in upper Northwest comes with a menu that meshes the flavors of the South with those of France, and an owner who has cooked at some of the most admired restaurants in the country, including Union Square Cafe in New York and the late Square One in San Francisco.

Adding to the potential for success is the restaurant’s location. If not quite a food desert, the area around Chevy Chase Circle won’t be confused for Penn Quarter or 14th Street, either. From the moment it opened in May, then, Macon Bistro & Larder has been swarmed with hungry neighbors.

Installed in the vintage Chevy Chase Arcade, the 65-seat restaurant is an homage to the city in central Georgia where chef-owner Tony Brown was raised, as well as a tip of the hat to Macon’s sister city in France. Brown’s choice to head the open kitchen would appear to complete the package: Mike Matis comes from the admirable Southern-themed Yardbird in Miami and has also cooked at such Washington all-stars as CityZen and the late Citronelle.

The color of life looks good on Macon Bistro. Shades of green burnish the seats, the china, the Brown family photographs and the leafy design on the walls. More sizzle comes by way of the light bulbs behind the bar, spelling out the name of the business. The goal, says Brown: “Southern garden party meets bistro-luxe.”

The mashup is a success.

If only the cooking could keep pace.

The lightest and most seasonal start to dinner is a thin corn soup, poured over poached shrimp and garnished at the table with tiny cornbread croutons. The soup is as sweet as summer; the croutons, spiked with jalapeño, counter with heat. If corn soup were the only appetizer you tried here, you’d be texting your pals to join you for dinner.

But the soup keeps company with some less savory characters. Frisee salad with a soft-cooked egg and a hailstorm of lardons might be improved with fewer bacon bites and less grit in the curly greens. Saucer-size fried green tomatoes topped with chunks of pork belly and an underliner of tomato-pink mayonnaise would be a better threesome if the meat weren’t posing as shoe leather.

It’s no surprise, given the restaurant’s Southern bent, that pork is a recurring ingredient. The snack board on the wall lists deviled eggs sprinkled with bacon crumbs (they’re fine) and pork rillettes that are mute if eaten without the accompanying pickled red onions and toasted bread. The main plate that gets my repeat attention finds slices of pork tenderloin dappled with golden peach preserves, its fruitiness countered with chipotle. Barely wilted watercress contributes a nice bite, too.

The runner-up in the congeniality department: hanger steak, crimson slices of beef enriched with a coin of herbed butter and offered with a handful of crisp french fries.

A few dishes merge the restaurant’s dual themes. Seared scallops decorate a pale green mound of mashed butter beans and potatoes, ringed with a subtle beurre rouge. And roast chicken with onion confit and smoky collards arrives as a plate that’s most interesting for the greens.

Not everything is Southern-fried or French-kissed. One of the more imaginative dishes on the menu is a thick slice of cauliflower that earns its stripes on the grill and is offered as a “steak” topped with a scattering of ratatouille and a crumble made from thyme, almond flour and olive oil. The idea is appealing to an extent; that green crumble had a pinch too much sugar in it when I last tried it.

Consistency is a nicety that eludes Macon, which started off strong but of late has stumbled. One day’s snack of crunchy pecans spiked with cayenne is another visit’s ramekin of soggy nuts. One night’s refreshing Water Lillets — a coupe of gin, grapefruit juice and Lillet Blanc — is another meal’s syrupy disappointment. One evening’s tame bowl of puy lentils is a second encounter’s salt lick.

Before meeting Macon, I had a theory that dishes named for family tended to be safe bets, the rationale being that only something truly delicious would merit the attachment. However, no amount of honey butter or pepper jelly could hide the reality that “Essie’s” biscuits were twice underbaked. (When I mentioned the problem to the server, his response was to keep the side, named after Brown’s maternal grandmother, on my tab.) “Gigi Mama’s” grainy, achingly sweet coconut cake also had me eating my words. Somewhere, the owner’s paternal grandmother can’t be smiling.

A better ending comes by way of the chocolate party cake, decorated with a candle no matter the occasion. And any meal is improved by a wine suggestion from general manager and beverage director Gene Alexeyev, a veteran of the Bombay Club and Blue Duck Tavern. His small list is Gallic to the last drop.

Making good on its wording, Macon sells snacks and sweets from a small larder that some locals consider a tease: You can’t make dinner from what’s offered, in other words. The skinny caramels aren’t as buttery as a fan might prefer, but the granola proves delicious with cranberries and orange. At $6 for a single serving, however, the cereal is priced for the Rockefellers among us. Also available for take-away are the cheddar cheese coins you may have enjoyed, with pickled cauliflower, at dinner.

The bistro spills tables into a hall lined with storefronts — a tunnel of heat — and a patch of uneven concrete facing busy Connecticut Avenue. Neither is as appealing as the dining room, loud as it often is. As a denizen of the neighborhood summed up the scene on the sidewalk, which takes in a view of an Exxon station across the street: “It isn’t Paris!”

Macon Bistro & Larder has a lot in its favor: good looks, sunny service, a captive audience. With time and attention, maybe more than a handful of dishes will join the tally.

1.5 stars

Location: 5520 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-248-7807. www.maconbistro.com.

Open: Dinner 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday,
5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; brunch 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Appetizers $8 to $15, main courses $17 to $26.

Sound check: 82 decibels/Extremely loud.

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THE SCOOP

Location: 5520 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-248-7807. www.maconbistro.com.

Open: Dinner 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday,
5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; brunch 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Appetizers $8 to $15, main courses $17 to $26.

Sound check: 82 decibels/Extremely loud.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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