THERE IS NO more intoxicating moment in a chef's life than when he opens his own restaurant, and few more uncertain. Marcel Bernard, a veteran of the kitchens at La Miche and Les Halles, has taken an impressive leap with his upscale Rockville cafe, L'Oustalet; and though the kitchen occasionally stumbles, it is far from falling on its face. Given time, Bernard's vision of a village bistro (albeit in the village center of King Farm) may indeed fly.
In the shoebox storefront that formerly housed the modest but promising Kuzine, L'Oustalet can only be described as cozy -- hence the name, which means "little house" in Provencal. (The upscaling, not to mention out-sprawling, of King Farm is a true phenomenon of the super-burb generation. One wonders how many of L'Oustalet's patrons have any idea that where they are dining has in only a few years passed from long-horned cattle pasture to white-tablecloth cafe.)
It's a pretty room, a little fussy, perhaps, with the extra floral border on top of the textured stucco walls and wall-to-wall French-foodie prints, but pleasant. Bernard has designed a menu that might be described as bistro-to-the-max: onion soup and roast chicken, trout and escargots, but also foie gras and Kobe steak. He has a flair for dramatic presentation, and a nicely discreet sense of seasoning. But he is clearly more inspired by the appetizers, which display a confidence, even a playfulness; some of the entrees however, though competent, have a more dutiful air.
There are moments of sophistication, such as a generous appetizer of ravioli stuffed with a delicate smoked salmon and topped with a light pesto cream that demanded swabbing clean; and a (slightly stingy) slice of foie gras whose richness was offset by dense dried figs and a drizzle of fig-Armagnac reduction. An ethereal spinach flan, a ramekin-size souffle with bits of lump crab and a hint of chutney, is delicious, though a night's special broccoli flan was all but imperceptible. A ragout of escargots, a sort of bourguignon with the snails posed atop pastry ring boxes amid an admiring crowd of mushrooms, played up the meatiness of the snails themselves rather than making them excuses for garlic butter. And a country pate, smooth but solid, was as seductive as it comes.
There are moments of silliness, however -- a shrimp salad cocktail that perched the admittedly fine shrimp high and dry on a stovepipe of pastry with the avocado salad in the bottom -- and offhanded seasoning that turned a side of mashed potatoes as stridently garlicky as the escargots were not.
Sometimes Bernard's cooking seems to emphasize style over substance. The scallop entree is beautifully presented -- four prettily seared scallops of slightly diminishing size, fanned out over blini identically measured out -- but the blini were dry and tasteless, and the scallops, though carefully tended, tasted more like those faux scallops punched from shark meat and passed off by wholesalers as the real thing. Another night, a special of heads-on shrimp was almost first-rate, and its bed of caramelized onions in a velvety state of collapse, but the mango sauce, which consisted of a flecking of yellow, was obscured not only by the onions but by the heads' musty innards. (The purple mum, tucked into the couscous, was an odd but nice touch.)
On the other hand, the substance sometimes outshines the style. One night's market bounty of fresh morels and black trumpet mushrooms was a rare pleasure and the morels nearly perfect; but the fact that the kitchen offered them only as accompaniment to a rib-eye steak was a disappointment. Surely there was a more creative way, not to mention a lighter one, to showcase them.
Generally, however, L'Oustalet serves up the goods. The onion soup gratinee is testament to that somewhat neglected classic, rich, dark and capped with a slab of melted Gruyere. Pumpkin soup was as luxuriant as a puree and not over-sweet; house-smoked salmon is a generous serving, though one wishes for a change-up presentation, toast points, lemon and capers being such a cliche. Both the salmon (over beautifully softened leeks) and cod (sided by a Provencal-style tomato stew) were slightly overcooked, but the chef's response to a request to keep the garlic confit on the side, which was to oven-roast a few cloves, was admirable.
Lamb chops are fine, lightly crumbed, perfectly trimmed and juicy, and the occasional special of bone-in lamb steak, from the sirloin part of the leg, is a welcome revival. Roast chicken was a minute or two overdone, as if it had been kept waiting for its french fries (and vice versa), but on another occasion, the fries, served with a huge dish of mussels, were much better.
Bernard needs to focus on a few front-of-the-house flaws. The wine list is more perfunctory than it might be. (Although it's not obvious, and the staff often forgets to mention it, L'Oustalet also stocks a little liquor, enough to turn out a martini or so.) And oddly, though the table flowers are real, the greenery is plastic. A sort of foyer has been constructed for the reception desk, but the doorless pass-through channels cold air right into the dining room (a curtain, perhaps?). The staff is few, a little flurried and too often condescending. A round of coffees never showed, even after several inquiries, and when they were finally canceled, the waiter said, rather ungraciously, "Well, okay, I'll take them off the bill." Well, yeah. However, the recent hiring of maitre d' Robert Weinrob is already smoothing out the service.
Nevertheless, L'Oustalet is obviously off to a good (and popular) start. It will be fun to see what happens once the adrenaline rush wears off.