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A French renaissance in Bethesda

tom sietsema
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; E03

It wasn't just because Carole Robert had once lived in Bethesda that the chef relocated her three-year-old restaurant, Annie's Bistro Francais, from Middleburg to Maryland in September.

Back in March, she says, "the ceiling fell down" in the original Annie's, which occupied an old building that its landlord didn't want to fix. "We got condemned," says Robert, who owns the operation with her husband, Mark Manly.

Their revived brand, named for Carole's late French mother, unfolds across two floors in a high-ceilinged dining room where the sun streams through skylights by day and a long counter separates the chef from the charmingly mismatched cafe tables. A chalkboard menu lists mostly sandwiches and salads; the owners talk up the day's soups when they welcome you. Tomato and basil soup tastes deeply of both and, like all of the choices here, is creamless. A diner also should look forward to white bean soup, which picks up flavor from ham, herbs and a chicken broth that Robert makes herself.

Egg salad set off with genuine Dijon mustard, capers and dill is prettily packaged with a chiffonade of greens between slices of a light baguette. Tuna salad with just a hint of a binder tastes, well, healthful. A composed salad is colorful with crisp bits of orange bell pepper and diced avocado, the elements tied together with a pleasing vinaigrette.

There's pulled pork barbecue on the menu, too, simply because Manly developed a taste for the smoky, vinegar-stoked meat during visits to his grandparents' retirement home in South Carolina. (Annie's barbecue is shipped in from North Carolina.) A handful of entrees - rabbit stew, filet mignon - make up the small dinner list.

A former mortgage broker along with Manly, Robert says she grew up in Paris but spent weekends on a family farm outside the city where she did a little bit of everything, including pickling vegetables and butchering chickens.

Don't get too excited about the Veuve Clicquot boxes displayed on the shelves. While the owners' beer and wine license is pending, the champagne is just a tease.

4823 St. Elmo Ave., Bethesda. 301-657-0080. Salads and sandwiches, $5.99 to $10.99.

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