Tom Sietsema Reviews Bistro L'Hermitage in Prince William County

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bistro L'Hermitage
12724 Occoquan Rd., Woodbridge

** 1/2 (out of four stars)
Sound Check: 70 decibels (Conversation is easy)

Youssef Eagle Essakl bought a low-slung, rundown Chinese restaurant in Woodbridge for $330,000 six years ago but didn't reopen the place as his French fantasy until just after Christmas 2007.

Why the long wait?

"I did it all myself!" the Moroccan native tells anyone who bothers to ask and even those customers who don't.

Essakl pulls the linen back from a table at Bistro L'Hermitage and points to the wood surface. "These were doors!" he exclaims in a voice that is at once hushed and commanding. "I cut and stained them."

It turns out the man knows how to sew, too. Hence the curtains over the windows. "The guys are going to hate me," he says, "but the women will love me."

Friends and I are afraid to stare at the cobblestone walls, handsome as they are, because surely there's a story there, too, and the food on the table isn't getting any warmer. Sure enough, Essakl positioned the stones with his very own hands.

If he looks like a suit you've seen before, here's one reason why: Essakl, 42, has worked for nearly 25 years in Washington restaurants, including such biggies as the late 21 Federal downtown and the still-cooking Marcel's in the West End. His résumé, which also includes time at different incarnations of the restaurant in the Watergate Hotel, explains the presence of a handful of veteran waiters in the dining room.

"You must look at the bathroom!" he urges us.

We will, we will. But right this moment we're trying to enjoy dinner, okay?

The kitchen makes that easy, with some classic French dishes we're awfully glad to see given that every other restaurant to open in the area these days seems to lean in the direction of Italy (not that there's anything wrong with that).

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