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French Immersion Program

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 1998

  Richman Review

Jeff Buben is a chef who craves challenges. He defied conventional wisdom five years ago when he opened Vidalia in a space below street level: Everyone knows that downstairs restaurants are chancy. And though he was born a Northerner, he gave Vidalia a Southern theme. (His wife, Sallie, has enough of a drawl to render it credible.) Now he's started a second restaurant – always a tough proposition – connected to a brand-new hotel on Capitol Hill, a part of town that's oddly inhospitable to sophisticated dining. What's more, his new place, called Bis, is French, and Buben is most decidedly not.

Given that Vidalia is solidly successful despite its staircase, and that its corn bread is the best in town, I'm not surprised to see Buben's new bistro already as crowded as if it were in Dupont Circle. It seems to have found a public that was just waiting for it. What's more, Buben's food is tasting more French (and delicious) with each passing day. He's needed a couple of months to practice this accent and nudge this large enterprise into shape. Yet after a shaky start, Bis has made rapid progress. It's becoming a most satisfying restaurant.

The bar, with a glass-fronted balcony above, immediately gives you the feeling that you're at the right party. Beyond it, the dining room seems an enormous theater focused on the kitchen as a stage, behind a curtain of slightly rippled glass. It's a most comfortable theater, with large tables – so large that waiters have trouble reaching across them – and glove-leather banquettes, under lozenge-shaped hanging lamps that suffuse the room with a golden glow. Unfortunately, those high ceilings and the handsome gray-and-white tiled floor combine to make conversing difficult, and the piped music sounds like Elevator Classics.

Buben has built an excellent wine list, overwhelmingly French, but with an enticing selection from lesser wine regions rather than just pricey bordeaux and burgundies. The Rhones, the Loires, the wines from Provence and southwest France include affordable, fascinating bottles to tempt or train wine lovers. Nor does Buben neglect other opportunities to please: His baguettes are darkly crusty and chewy (though sometimes you have to ask for them), and before dinner he sends out little gifts such as gougeres – cheese-laced pastry puffs – and French salami with a multiplicity of olives.

Buben has also wisely limited his menu to fewer than a dozen choices for each course, and manages to present a wide range of French classics nevertheless. Every serious bistro must have snails, mussels, pâté, simple salads and the great soups – onion and pistou. Those are the starters. And entrees are expected to include steak frites, steak tartare, roasted or grilled meats, a stew and the devilishly rich duck confit. Buben has added several hearty renditions of fish and scallops to this mix. And his side dishes show him to be a wizard with potatoes: french fries, a gratin and – the reason to temporarily ignore any restraint whatsoever – mashed potatoes that are probably equal parts butter and potato, richer still from a heady dark swirl of truffle butter. If you don't dare consume such buttery luxury, order a bowlful just to smell. It's the most seductive $4.50 perfume you can find.

Soups are a natural for a winter evening in a bistro. Here they're big in size and flavor, packed with ingredients enough for a meal. The onion soup's broth is not so dark and beefy as you might expect, but delicate and sweet from slowly stewed onions, and sealed with cheese. Pistou, the white-bean soup flavored, like pesto, with basil and garlic, is here a light broth, with bits of macaroni and briefly cooked diced vegetables. It's so fragrant and fresh, it's almost a hot salad.

If you want your salad cold, don't miss the julienned endive and pears with walnuts and blue cheese, everything crunchy and lightly slicked with walnut oil. And there's the bistro perennial, frisee with lardons and remarkably crisp, light croutons. At brunch it comes with a poached egg to stir in and coat the greens.

Snails are not simply drowned in garlic butter here, but are simmered with artichokes, potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini and chunks of brioche in garlic butter to make a wonderfully unctuous little stew. It's the heartiest of the appetizers. Seared squid with chorizo and roasted peppers only sounds intense; it actually tastes faint and boring. Duck and foie gras terrine, salty and compact, is also uneventful; far better is its accompanying salad of haricots verts with walnuts. Buben has a way with Provencal flavors, as in an appetizer tart of crisp puff pastry with yellow peppers, fennel and saline black olives.

Steak frites – so easy, yet so hard to get right. Buben does. The sirloin strip, a grainy cut of beef with plenty of meaty taste, is grilled so it crackles on the outside, and inside bursts with juices. The fries are on the mark, soft and faintly starchy-sweet inside the darkly browned surface. The accompanying bearnaise is too tame, but it's unnecessary anyway.

A man who can cook a steak like this should certainly do lamb well. It's thickly sliced and crusty, aromatic with ratatouille, rosemary and olives. Yet it's been oddly juiceless, as if it had languished under a heat lamp. Rotisserie chicken is even more mysterious: It looks browned and plump, but the meat is bland, alternately soggy and dry. Quail, a daily special one night, was chewy. Duck confit has yearned for more time to cure, and the veal stew needs development.

Yet with one exception the fish dishes seem never to falter. The grilled tuna au poivre is monumental, cooked hardly past raw and buried under dried tomatoes, haricots verts, olives, potatoes and drifts of garlicky aioli. It's perfectly delicious excess. Swordfish, too, is cut thick and served juicy, with a restrained dressing of saffron butter and braised fennel. And seared scallops vie with the tuna as the best entree here-maybe the best on Capitol Hill. They're cooked just beyond quivering, and highlighted with tomatoes, garlic, olives and a shimmery little eggplant custard. Only the goujonettes of sole taste overdone, their pale flesh dry.

Buben clearly cares about desserts. After fits and starts, the lemon tart has emerged as a lusciously puckery eggy custard in a thin cookie shell, the tarte Tatin has a fine buttery crust, the raspberry-studded creme brulee has precisely the right shivering and delicate texture under a thin veneer of caramel, and the bittersweet chocolate ice cream is like a smooth frozen candy bar. As in Buben's other courses, though, desserts have left room for improvement. The chocolate mousse is as sweet and thick as frosting, and the chocolate napoleon is a disappointing modernization.

Each week, Bis has shown progress. At this rate, it will take mere months to grow up into a thoroughly seasoned classic.

Bis – Hotel George, 15 E ST. NW. 202/661-2700. Open: for breakfast daily 7 to 10 a.m.; for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner daily 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; for brunch Saturday and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations accepted at lunch and dinner. Separate smoking area. Prices: lunch appetizers $6.50 to $7.50, entrees $12 to $14.75; dinner appetizers $7.50 to $9.75, entrees $16.50 to $22. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $45 to $55 per person

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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