French conquers all at Bezu in Potomac Former embassy chef conjures Gascony

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, January 23, 2011; W31

The awning at Bezu calls for some tailoring. "French-Asian" no longer applies to the food diners find inside the Potomac restaurant, where Francis Layrle replaced Dennis Friedman in the kitchen in October and where one of the few remaining traces of the departed chef is an appetizer of ahi tuna slices edged in seaweed.

The restaurant might or might not be better. I can't say, as I never made it to Bezu under Friedman's watch (he was also co-owner). But the four-year-old establishment, tucked in a shopping strip, merits a fresh look given the new chef's impressive run at the French Embassy in Washington. From 1973 to 2006, Layrle fed seven ambassadors in the residence in Kalorama. He left to assume the top job at Taquet in Wayne, Pa., but returned to this area in 2008 and launched a catering business. When Eddie Benaim, who now co-owns Bezu with his wife, Lydia, was looking for someone to replace Friedman (now focused on a new project, Newton's Table, in Bethesda), the restaurateur turned to his old pal Layrle.

Bezu opens with smiles at the host stand and a small bar that pours a memorable Manhattan, perfectly balanced and glinting with ice. The dining room beyond is inviting in orange fabric alternating with Jerusalem stone on the walls and tall booths that suggest that what's said in Bezu stays in Bezu. If you can, avoid the tables that run down the middle of the room, the least cozy of the 50 or so seats (calling ahead might help). Diners aren't privy to the newly expanded kitchen, but they benefit from the alterations, which include more wine refrigeration and freezer space for Layrle's ice creams and sorbets.

From the first bite, you can sense why the chef was able to stay so long at the embassy. The guy can cook. Small, plump mussels drift in a soup that gets a delicate crunch from corn and a lovely lift from saffron. Ringlets of squid are teamed with garlic, olives and coins of chorizo in a near-stew of a first course. Earthy snails and mushrooms that summon the woods are invigorated by a splash of Pernod in their seasoning. The dishes, including seared scallops tickled by a light citrus sauce, arrive in outsize white bowls or plates that make nice canvases for Layrle's handiwork.

The chef is from Gascony in southwestern France, a region revered, among other reasons, for its Armagnac, foie gras and duck. Fowl has appeared as a special at Bezu, and what I tasted deserved permanent status on the menu: rosy slices of Muscovy duck staged on its plate with a crisp stack of fried artichokes, a nest of golden potatoes and a light currant jus.

The top toque is assisted by sous-chef Patrice Peron. His name might be unfamiliar, but food lovers will no doubt recognize his former employers, Et Voila! in the Palisades and Central Michel Richard downtown. That said, the precise cooking (and some of the lofty prices) at Bezu most remind me of Yannick Cam's Bistro Provence in Bethesda.

Wine drinkers are encouraged to book on Monday night, when Bezu offers its bottles for half-price. I, for one, can vouch for the thrill of drinking a 2005 Chateauneuf du Pape from Guigal for $47.50, particularly if the evening includes Layrle's veal chop, sparked with bright red pomegranate seeds and filled out with a buttery whip of potatoes garnished with shoestring potatoes: a spud-on-spud splurge. More homespun, but just as pleasing, is the beef daube: braised-til-tender bites of meat sweetened with pearl onions, rich with red wine and hearty with bay leaf and other herbs.

Not all is so swell. An entree of grilled branzino doesn't need the field of melting braised fennel that crowds its plate, and poached black cod circled by a crimson moat of soft bell peppers is more respectable than revelatory. The dry cake of fruited couscous that shows up with the rack of lamb suggests that not everyone in the kitchen is up to the standards of Layrle (who says he hopes to add a few more line cooks).

The orders are taken and the food is delivered by servers who are alternately suave and not so much. "Water?" someone will ask after you're seated. "Water?" another will inquire moments later. There can be long waits between courses, and your arm will get a work-out from pouring your own wine. The dining room staff could use some of the kitchen's polish.

Desserts hew to the classics. Thin folded crepes don't stint on the Grand Marnier (and I love the accompanying candied, poached orange slices), and mille-feuille lives up to its name, its "thousand leaves" of pastry made decadent with kirsch-flavored whipped cream. But I'm just as happy with a simple pineapple gratinee lashed with caramel sauce.

At Bezu, fusion has given way to a fully French menu -- and a chance for diners to be fed as if they were dignitaries.


Two stars (Good)

Bezu, 9812 Falls Rd., Potomac. 301-299-3000.

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

Prices: Lunch appetizers $8 to $15, entrees $9 to $19; dinner appetizers $8 to $21, entrees $19 to $38.

Sound check: 68 decibels/Conversation is easy.

Ask Tom

"My 14-year-old wants your job" read the subject line of a post that I didn't get around to answering on my food chat last month. "She'll eat just about anything (including octopus), savors every mouthful, and I swear her first phrase was 'Chi-eee food,'" the proud parent wrote, alluding, I presume, to Chinese cooking. "Any suggestions for a kid who wants to eat and write about it when she grows up?"

The teen sounds as if she already has one of the essential tools of my trade: passion for the subject.* I'd recommend that she round out her interest with some cooking instruction; travel as much as possible (nothing beats eating food on its home turf); acquaint herself with top-shelf food prose (anything written by the late essayist M.F.K Fisher or the very much alive food writer Jonathan Gold of the L.A. Weekly); and write, write, write. She ought to seek out a mentor, maybe a teacher, to then edit, edit, edit her work.

* Sorry, little Eve Harrington, but I don't intend to retire anytime soon.

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