Try Le Vieux for Old Times' Sake
Friday, August 12, 2005
YOU DON'T go to Bethesda to dine at Le Vieux Logis: You go to Le Vieux Logis to escape Bethesda.
The post-Metro Bethesda, that is, that gold-rush restaurant town with its colored drinks, its BlackBerry dinks and its X-treme garage sports. For 25 years, Le Vieux Logis, which chose to identify itself with the "old" values from the very beginning, has quietly, politely declined to jostle for position, relying on a few old-fashioned virtues -- personal attention, embracing hospitality and solid, unshowy cooking -- to keep more than one generation of customers happy. And with the recent closing of Cafe Bethesda, another bastion of quiet civility, the genteel comforts of Le Vieux Logis seem even more of an endangered anachronism. More like sanctuary.
Trendy decor, elaborate platings, ingredient buzzwords be damned. Le Vieux Logis -- "The Old Lodge," a salute to the (much more formal) Dordogne, France, inn that inspired it -- looks pretty much as it has for at least a decade. The outside is famously painted with flower boxes and blooms, a metaphorical hedge against traffic. The inside is, well, "inn sided," faux-timbered and busily hung with copper pots and plates and plants. Cocktails are the size they ought to be for pleasure rather than tripled for maximum effect.
It's immediately obvious that this is the sort of place where the phrase "regular customer" is redundant, where the owner (in this case, Diana Dahan) is known to nearly all by her first name and vice versa. One hears Le Vieux Logis described as an older folks' restaurant, and that's happily true: Patrons dress for dinner, at least a little; women have carefully smoothed hair and sometimes hats; only a few men haul out cell phones or glance condescendingly at the wine list; and those children who come -- the third generation, in some cases -- know they have to be on their best behavior. (The bathrooms are not equipped with rails for wheelchair users, but diners who are only moderately restricted may find them sufficiently large.)
The menu is generally and conservatively continental, although with a few curious twists (the pickled herring, for instance). The kitchen knows its strengths and generally stays within them. One of the nicest dishes, a frequent special rather than a menu item, is a warm-weather version of veal osso buco with a lovely, light broth, clean-flavored vegetables and, quite often, marrow so delicious it's silent testimonial to the high quality of the meat. The seared scallops over a similarly light ratatouille, really a vegetable saute, are exactingly seared and creamy-textured, and when the menu promises the Dover sole meuniere is the real thing, it means both the fish and its restrained flouring. Even more satisfying, for those who love that slightly mustier flavor, are the monkfish medallions a l'Americaine , that is, in a sauce of sauteed lobster shells and morsels deglazed in brandy, tomato and cream, a vanishing classic. And for those who consider snails just the excuse for garlic butter, this version's a real stunner; a vampire could suffer secondhand stroke from 20 feet.
Perhaps in deference to its customers' restricted diets, the kitchen errs on the side of blandness and not only when it comes to salt. The cold soups, vichyssoise, cream of cucumber and the like, have recently emerged a bit too thin (even for the European taste) and verging on lackluster, especially as chilling food takes even more edge off seasonings. Calf's liver, sauteed and topped with browned onions and bacon that reiterated "animal fat," begs for spice or acid splash. (It's certainly a generous slab, however.) And since batter is another of those items that really cannot be made salt-free, one night's soft-shell crabs were all texture and no taste.
On the other hand, a cautious hand with the vinaigrette just prevented a salad of red and yellow beets with greens, goat cheese and walnuts from falling victim to too many pushy elements. And a steak sauce that might well have been over-reduced by many cooks survived with its juices and wine nearly intact.
Caution is also a virtue when it comes to cooking vegetables. It's hard to imagine quarrelling with the accompaniments, particularly the crisp-tender haricots verts that are a house staple. The unusually sweet and greaseless sweet potato fries that arrive as a little surprise with the calf's liver are a rare modern touch, and their mildness is a clever balance to the liver's forwardness. (It's easier, however, to quarrel with one modern "convenience" -- foil-wrapped butter.)
Le Vieux Logis may once have been more of a special-occasion destination, but these days it seems like a mental health day. As they say on TV, take a little time to stop and enjoy le vieux .