A bit of France lands in Bethesda Cam's bistro brightens the dining scene

Grilled Shrimp AppetizerJuly 2010
Grilled Shrimp AppetizerJuly 2010 (Scott Suchman)
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, August 1, 2010

After far too long, there's a fresh reason to book a table in Bethesda: Bistro Provence.

Its outdoor patio is one of the area's loveliest. The restaurant's long list of specials sends you on the trip to France you can only fantasize about right now. Best of all, the April debut of Bistro Provence marks the return of one of the mid-Atlantic's best chefs, Yannick Cam. His five-year run at the sumptuous (and sometimes haughty) Le Paradou in Washington ended a year ago, a victim of the sour economy. His new endeavor -- set so far back from the street it almost feels like a secret -- extends the trend toward ever-more-casual restaurants from great chefs, although Bistro Provence still dresses its tables with linens.

Eating Cam's beautiful food in his new lair is like watching Streep or De Niro onscreen. Each can move audiences with quietly astonishing performances. In the chef's case, that translates to carefully pared vegetables, sauces that bring Michelin to mind and the sort of deft touches that separate masters from so many "Top Chef" wannabes. To see what I mean, order the grilled shrimp appetizer, napped with a subtle sauce of celery and pear, and dusted with bacon, or a fetching ode to the season that brings together tender clams, creamy morels, verdant asparagus and slender penne. One of the most seductive seviches anywhere right now is the 61-year-old chef's refined and refreshing version of dewy, thinly cut scallops partnered with grapefruit and sprinkled with diced red onion and coriander. The more you eat of these dishes, the more you don't want them to end.

In the opening weeks, chaos defined the service. But time and new management have smoothed out some of the staff's wrinkles. Chances are excellent, in other words, that you will get the baby clams stuffed with spinach and walnuts you ordered rather than someone else's dish. Chances are also good that you'll swoon over the juicy, crunchy and herb-sweetened appetizer.

If you close your eyes and taste the duck confit, you'll swear you're sitting in a Parisian locale rather than in downtown Bethesda. The skin shatters with a light crackle, giving way to meaty and succulent bird, its bed of sauteed potatoes sweetened with soft onions every bit as heady as the centerpiece. Cam's simpler dishes are just as transporting. High and light on the plate, a pale green tumbleweed of chicory comes with brush strokes of mustard dressing and precise snips of bacon. Gorgeous. Onglet honors that bistro classic with oh-so-tender hanger steak, pitch-perfect red-wine sauce and buttery chanterelles mixed in with golden potatoes.

Unlike Cam's last place, Bistro Provence forsakes truffles and caviar. But the chef is still stocking lobster, and he serves luscious tail and claw meat on an equally rich bed of tiny lentils speckled with minced carrot and tomato. ("Proves anything is better with two sticks of butter," cracks a lentil agnostic at my table who surprises herself by how many of the marjoram-laced legumes she dispatches.) The chef brands Provence a bistro, but his $24 foie gras appetizer and wines priced for moguls push it into the realm of a serious, and sometimes seriously expensive, restaurant: With wine, a recent midweek dinner for two set us back $200.

So expectations run higher, and flaws or oversights become more objectionable. Why, for instance, does the printed list of specials come without any prices? And why the missteps among the entrees? Dull bread plus a bland veal chop equals one dissatisfied diner. The meat is tender, its sauce glossy, but the chop has so little flavor, it might as well be tofu. My first and early encounter with chicken here was so positive that I insisted a table mate order it on my latest visit. The second encounter was far less memorable (the bird was overcooked), although the entree was somewhat redeemed by an airy disk of Parmesan-enriched polenta on the plate. The restaurant's accompaniments and side dishes are terrific, by the way, foremost the lacy tian of spinach, tangy dried tomatoes, egg and olives: a frittata gone to heaven.

When the thermometer isn't edging or surpassing 100 degrees, the bistro's patio, surrounded by stone and greenery, is where you want to dine. To reach the rear, diners pass a small granite bar and closely set tables in one of two narrow spaces. Inviting in brick and gold paint, the dining room ends with an open galley and a glimpse of Cam and crew in action. (Vincent Arnaux, the chef's No. 2 at the late Le Paradou, reprises the same role here.)

The elegance that distinguishes the food burnishes the interior, which is dressed up with fancy metalwork and a silver duck press, among other appointments. A caveat: I never noticed the restaurant's noise problem until the sweltering night in July when I sat in the forward dining room. All of the doors and windows were shut, trapping the sound and forcing my companions and me to read lips between sips of Gigondas and bites of boeuf (disappointingly flat, I should add, despite the steak's topping of cracked pepper).

Bistro Provence's sorbets and molten chocolate cake are similar to what you can find in dozens of other restaurants. More in keeping with Cam's résumé is a delicate sugar crepe filled with almond cream that meets its contrast in a tart and brilliantly colored passion fruit sauce. White chocolate is a flavor that food professionals tend to poke fun of (it's not really chocolate, and it reminds some palates of wax); even so, I confess an affection for this kitchen's fluffy white chocolate mousse sandwiched by elegant, wafer-thin tuiles.

Already, there are plans to expand: For fall, Cam is mulling a small private dining room on the second floor, which houses an office and apartments. This diner hopes Cam attends to some necessary polishing on the ground floor first. But even now, Bistro Provence is the brightest star in Bethesda's galaxy.

Two and a half stars (Good/Excellent)

Bistro Provence

4933 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda. 301-656-7373. bistroprovence.org.

Open: Lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m. Major credit cards. Parking lot nearby.

Metro: Bethesda.

Prices: Lunch appetizers $6.95-$11.50, entrees $12-$22; dinner appetizers $8.50-$24, entrees $19.50-$36.

Sound check: 80 decibels/extremely loud.

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