First Bite: Bistro La Bonne

By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Washington's U Street NW corridor is a chowhound's buffet, paved with Asian and Italian noodles, all-American burgers and chili, Trinidadian roti, even Andean tapas. The mid-January arrival of Bistro La Bonne adds something fresh to the mix: a French accent.

The restaurant also finds a veteran chef, Daniel Labonne, 36, acting as his own boss for the first time. Perhaps you've tasted his food before; the Martinique native comes to the neighborhood having cooked at Bistrot du Coin in Dupont Circle, La Chaumiere in Georgetown, Petits Plats in Woodley Park and Wazuri, the much-missed African adventure in Dupont Circle.

A fresh coat of paint at the two-level Bistro La Bonne has lightened the former home of Axis. A string of blue, white and red flags across the dining room's brick walls tips off patrons to possibilities from the kitchen: escargot, cassoulet, steak frites and coq au vin.

The braised chicken dish, heady with wine and scattered with tortellini, was the perfect companion for Part 1 of Snowmaggedon. But the entree wasn't the only thing keeping our forks busy and our table conversation on pause that blustery night earlier this month. Labonne makes his own pâté, and it's very good. Cinnamon and nutmeg lend their charms to the slab of ground pork and veal, as do smoked bacon and green peppercorns.

Trout picks up some stripes from the grill and gets a terrific sidekick in the form of rice pilaf studded with mussels and shrimp. The grains are richly flavored. The chef's trick? They're cooked in fish stock.

Bistro La Bonne is that unusual place where main courses tend to trump appetizers. Onion soup is masked by too much cheese, and the frisee salad looks as if a first-grader tossed it. But you have to appreciate a restaurant that cuts and twice-cooks its own fries and offers île flottante, the seldom-seen "floating island" of soft meringue, circled with vanilla sauce and dusted with sliced almonds. Next blizzard, we promise ourselves, having eaten every last fry on the table.

1340 U St. NW, 202-758-3413, Dinner entrees, $14.95-$22.95.

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