An Earned Exclamation
Sunday, July 20, 2008
5120 MacArthur Blvd. NW 202-237-2300
** 1/2 (out of four)
Sound Check: 80 Decibels (Extremely loud)
By training, I'm a skeptic. Whenever a waiter tells me that "everything is good" on the menu, whenever a chef brags on his résumé about having toiled at a temple of haute cuisine, and whenever a restaurant claims to serve only the best ingredients, I hear my journalism teacher's voice in my head. "If your mother tells you she loves you," he coached his students, "check it out."
From the moment I got word that a Belgian restaurant was opening in the Palisades this spring, I was eager to investigate. Yes, I wanted to find out how its waterzooi and french fries compared to the competition. But I also wanted to know if Et Voila! lived up to its own hype. (Exclamation points, I also learned as a budding reporter, should be used with discretion.)
Eyes light up when my posse strolls in on a recent weeknight. None of us knows anyone on the payroll, but the staff treats us as if we're regulars and appears glad to see us. Long and narrow, this location has always been an awkward one, but the transition from Bistro Bernoise to Et Voila! was accompanied by a makeover that lends warmth and style to the digs. Place mats and banquettes are a cheery orange; photos of Brussels and framed mirrors perk up soft yellow walls. A high, pressed-tin ceiling gives the illusion of more space, and a raised group table in the back is the perfect place to scope out the crowd while remaining partly removed from the scene. Chances are, you'll wait if you don't have a reservation. The word is out: Et Voila! is a hot ticket in a part of town where the pickings are slim.
Along with wine bars and pizza joints, Belgian restaurants are among the trends Washington has embraced with gusto in recent years. The appeal is simple: We love steamed mussels, double-cooked fries, beers of distinction and chocolate mousse. And, aside from a designer brew or two, the prices at Belgian outposts tend to be agreeable. (Among the draws here is a lunch special: two courses and coffee or wine for $17.95.)
The eyes feast first at Et Voila!, where every dish gets the beauty treatment. Belgian endive takes on a new personality when it's chopped, teamed with pecans and two cheeses (crumbles of sharp blue and dices of nutty Chimay), tossed in white balsamic vinegar and served in a deep, oval bowl. The balance of textures and colors is pitch perfect. The salad's equal in the entree department is the rib-eye steak, as mouthwatering a piece of meat as you'll find for a mile. Cool pats of herb-green butter rest atop the steak, which is cooked the way you ask and delivered with dark, golden french fries that taste truly of potatoes and with a pompom of watercress, a refreshing bit of punctuation. Even the side dishes show attention to detail. It's hard to make stoemp look enticing, but the Belgian mash of vegetables (potatoes and carrots when I ordered it) appears camera-ready, staged in a small black casserole with precise ripples on its surface.
The men behind these fetching compositions are Claudio Pirollo and Mickael Cornu. Pirollo came to the city a decade ago and cooked at Montmartre on the Hill and at the Irish embassy before launching a catering company, A Modo Mio. Cornu, his business partner, is trained as a pastry chef (and plays that role here).
At Et Voila!, steamed mussels are transported in traditional double-decker pots (the top doubles as a container for empty shells). The vessels make nice advertisements for the seafood, which is served as an appetizer spiked with saffron or as a main course flavored with garlic cream and completed with fries. As tasty as these mussels are, lots of restaurants do mussels well. My suggestion is to gravitate to traditional Belgian dishes, which are about as good as they come here. One route offers chunks of beef in a dark, beer-
infused sauce -- Flemish beef stew, of course -- garnished with a piece of grilled bread spread with mustard. Comfort food, sexed up. Another path finds juicy chicken pieces, strewn with threads of carrot, leeks and celery in a light cream sauce. An enlightened waterzooi.
You won't find a lot of bells and whistles on the plates; the chefs' cooking runs to the subtle. Thus a cake of tuna tartare gets a little spark from fresh ginger; sea bass, sauteed to a fine crunch, is dressed with a delicate saffron sauce. Yet the dishes stand out. One of the best, and richest, pâtés in town is served here. Named for a former chef at the French embassy and a friend of Pirollo's, "Papi's" pâté gets its lush decadence from a combination of (don't tell your cardiologist) pork belly, chicken livers, foie gras, cognac and eggs. A little dab will do you, but if you're anything like me, you'll polish off the goods.
Cornu whips up an intense chocolate mousse, which he serves in a martini glass and sprinkles with cocoa nibs that add a welcome crunch. Lighter, and finer, is his apple tart -- thin slices of fruit treated to a scoop of ice cream laced with white beer and honey. Most unusual is "Miserables," a biscuit made from almond flour and egg whites, poised on a sheer pink sheet of strawberry gelatin. The arrangement catches the eyes more than the taste buds.
Here and there, the newcomer reminds us that as good as it is, there's room to improve. Is the restaurant storing its wine near an oven? Every wine I've ordered has had to sit in an ice bath for a few minutes before I've been able to drink it. Waiters are relaxed about who is responsible for which table; more than once, I've been greeted twice by different servers. And a few dishes appear to be the work of another kitchen: Spongy scallops, endive that managed to be both harshly bitter and cloyingly sweet and a gray beer sauce resembled nothing I had seen here before. French fries are usually, but not always, delicious.
My litmus test after most meals on the clock is to ask a question of my guests: Would you come back on your own dime? Vigorous nods followed the query every time at Et Voila!, which waves a proud Belgian flag -- and lives up to its punctuation.
Open: lunch Tuesday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m; dinner Tuesday through Sunday 5 to 10 p.m.; brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. All major credit cards. Street parking. Prices: lunch entrees $12.95 to $16.95, dinner entrees $15.95 to $25.95.