Two bistros on Capitol Hill: a newcomer with a meaty focus and an old-timer with a fresh look

Among restaurant fans, the arrival of Rose’s Luxury continues to command the most attention on Capitol Hill, but other changes deserve notice, too. One involves a “Top Chef” performer and his most sophisticated idea yet; the second concerns a veteran restaurateur and a refreshed interior. Although both restaurants claim French accents, the similarity stops there.

With Good Stuff Eatery, Spike Mendelsohn gave us burgers served in a farmhouse setting, and with We, the Pizza, the “Top Chef” celebrity rolled out thick-crusted pies and sodas made by in-house “fizzicians.” For his latest concept, Béarnaise, Mendelsohn skips the cupcake and doughnut trends — thank goodness — and reaches back to his childhood in Montreal for inspiration. His favorite place to eat, he says, was a steak frites restaurant, L’Entrecôte Saint-Jean.

Like his burger joint and pizza parlor, Béarnaise, introduced in July, unfolds on a busy stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue. Distinct from its nearby siblings, Béarnaise suggests an owner who isn’t just a personality with dollar signs in his eyes, but a chef with admirable chops.

Make that two chefs. Brad Race, 33, is the day-to-day presence with an unconventional past: He started out as a bond trader but ditched Wall Street for kitchen duties, starting in New York at Oceana and Le Cirque, where he met his future boss, and continuing in Washington at the original Minibar and the late Michel in Tysons Corner.

Exuberant table service is the first clue this is a restaurant with aspirations. In the seven months since it set sail, puppy-eagerness has given way to breezy charm. Quick with recommendations, the waiters coach and flirt their way through your meal.

“More fries?” the staff asks if you’re running low on the escort to steak. The best deal is the juicy eight-ounce flat iron, which comes with a choice of salad or soup plus a sauce and unlimited potatoes for $28.

“More bread?” waiters inquire if there’s broth left in a bowl of steamed mussels. The seafood that calls to me most gathers plump bivalves in a tropical bath of coconut milk, ginger and lemon grass. Intoxicating.

A server tells us the duck confit is a favorite of the two toques. Skin that crackles between the teeth and flesh that falls from the bone explain the affection (both theirs and mine). You’ll want something green to balance the succulence; crisp green beans sharpened with pickled shallots do the trick.

The most appealing change from Day One is a greater selection. Steak frites is now one of many draws. Fresh starts include Pernod-laced snails in a cap of puff pastry and a warm goat cheese salad with biting greens. Main dishes span an herby chicken paillard and a pork chop notable more for its thickness than its flavor or texture (the meat was dry). As befits a bistro, half the wine selections are under $40 a bottle.

No trace of the former occupant, Thai Roma, remains. Outfitted with old-looking mirrors, black-and-white tile floors and pressed-tin ceilings, the two-story Béarnaise could pass for a neighborhood spot in Paris. Which, alas, also translates to dining rooms that are clamorous and snug.

It’s easy to get carried away with the crisp fries and the crusty bread and not leave room for anything sweet. But tender profiteroles draped with hot chocolate sauce and the seasonal tart (date cake on a winter visit) merit a place at the table.

Throughout, the service reminds me that food isn’t the only reason we go out to eat. Nearing the end of a pamper session with a table of what appear to be tourists, a dynamo server encourages the group to come back.

“Just ask for the bald guy from Normandy,” I overhear the Bald Guy From Normandy say as he bids them adieu. Something tells me even if they don’t return, they’ll be telling their friends about this sweet French place in Washington. I know I will.

When Jeff Buben reopened Bistro Bis after a post-New Year’s makeover, he and his crew did what they do every Saturday night at his other Washington restaurants, Vidalia and Woodward Table, and paraded through the refreshed dining room with pots of hot herbs and spices.

On a practical note, the aromas erase the smell of Pledge and replace it with cooking fragrances. But the drill is also meant to ward off bad juju. Buben calls it “an offering to the restaurant gods.”

The higher-ups should be pleased with the new look at the 15-year-old French restaurant in the Hotel George on Capitol Hill. Buben says he wanted regulars to recognize Bis after the $300,000 sprucing, and they will. The most obvious difference is the tin ceiling that runs from the bar to the semi-open kitchen in the back. Otherwise, the dining room, separated from the kitchen by frosted glass, simply looks fresher than before.

The same cannot be said of some of the cooking, which feels dated against much of the competition. It was a treat to see scallop quenelles among the dishes, and although the twin dumplings had a pleasant seafood flavor, their texture was dense rather than traditionally cloudlike. I cheered choucroute apportioned for one until I started poking around the plate and discovered tough pork and underdone potatoes along with good Riesling-laced sauerkraut.

Anyone interested in pursuing the classics needs to check out the gratineed oysters Florentine, richer even than Rockefeller with smoked ham, and the hearty beef Bourguignon. Like most of the dishes here, these are served in American sizes: strapping.

Some new dishes accompanied the interior changes. Two enticements: Burgundy snails in a raft of puff pastry, lapped with bordelaise sauce, and crisp sweetbreads accessorized with sliced veal tongue and celery root mousseline. As before, hot cheese puffs signal the start of dinner. I could easily make a feast of them.

Does the C team work the day shift? It felt that way during a recent lunch. Service proved rushed and perfunctory; when they weren’t following your finger on the wine list to identify the glass you wanted, waiters were coming back twice to verify dessert and coffee orders. Leathery crepes filled with squash that tasted like baby food were followed by desserts that channeled the “Dynasty” era. I couldn’t decide which confection was worse, the cloying chocolate gateaux or the bagel-shaped Paris-Brest filled with a super-sweet and pasty hazelnut cream. Sorbets went down like fruit sludge.

The recent operation at Bistro Bis turned out to be a partial success. To make the gods really happy, the cooks should have stayed in the kitchen and practiced, practiced, practiced.

Coming next week: Iron Gate
in Dupont Circle.

★ ★

(Good)
Béarnaise

315 Pennsylvania Ave. SE.
202-450-4800. bearnaise
restaurant.com
.

OPEN:
11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5:30 to
11 p.m. Saturday.

PRICES: Appetizers $8 to $15; lunch sandwiches and main courses $12 to $24; dinner main courses $18 to $42.

SOUND CHECK:
83 decibels/
Extremely loud.

½ star

(Satisfactory/Good)
Bistro Bis

15 E St. NW. 202-661-2700. bistrobis.com.

OPEN:
Breakfast 7 to 10 a.m.; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; brunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

PRICES:
Lunch appetizers $10.50 to $13.50, main courses $15.50 to $24; dinner appetizers $10.50 to $13, main courses $22.50 to $32.50.

SOUND CHECK:
76 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

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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