WHAT DO YOU get when you cross an old-fashioned French bistro with a suburban mega-mall? Valet parking, a lot more light, a bigger kitchen -- and, happily, much the same food. Thank heaven for small miracles.
In May, after eight years in almost overly cozy quarters off the Vienna stretch of Route 123, chef-owner Raoul Jean-Richard and his wife, Edna, relocated Bistro 123 to the recently expanded Tysons Corner Center -- which, since the mall is officially on Route 123, fortunately allowed them to keep the old name. The new space is light and modern, with pale walls and slick wooden chairs that are more comfortable than they look. (The plain, flat board that serves as the banquette seat is a little strenuous.) The old bistro's hodgepodge of Cezannes and other French reproductions, centered on David's heroic Napoleon, have also made the transition, although in their new surroundings they seem a little less sentimental and rather more kitschy.
What's reassuring is the food, which is still best at the basics: a juicy little leg of lamb steak, simple pan-seared red snapper, small but juicy frog's legs, and the kind of light and clean vinaigrette every kitchen ought to be able to manage but rarely does. And the delicate onion-stuffed ravioli that come unannounced with the frog's legs are superb, airy and sweet.
The cream of asparagus soup is richer in texture and lighter in flavor -- without that sulfurous edge -- than most versions. The Caesar salad is a slightly edited version (the menu marks it for the raw egg, and the kitchen is sparing with anchovy), but for sheer balance, the mesclun with roasted golden beets and butter-soft Vermont chevre is a star. Gravlax has a clean, sharp tang. The foie gras is classic, if not stunning.
The larger kitchen staff is still shaking down, apparently. The pork chop has an intriguing sweet-and-sour sauce -- bourbon and fig -- although a slightly thicker piece would more easily resist overcooking. The veal "porterhouse" isn't quite what the phrase evokes; it's basically a loin chop and, at $22.95, not one of the bistro's best bargains.
The raisin bread is pretty good; the white not very. One night the julienned celeriac accompanying the gravlax would have been oversalted even if it hadn't been paired with another salty flavor. On another occasion, the crabmeat ravioli came out in a generous portion for an appetizer, but the "exotic mushroom broth" was more like cream of mushroom soup and obliterated any crab flavor.
The wait staff needs a little fine-tuning as well. One waiter oozed such self-satisfaction it verged on condescension. Another hadn't learned to twist the wine bottle when pouring, so it dripped every time. (He also responded cheerfully, "Certainly!" when one table asked to keep the wine list, promptly carrying it away.) On the other hand, he was genuinely pleasant, which is rather more important.
It's also worth noting that most of the entrees are sided, in the old style, with only a starch, and a French portion at that, not the heavy American dollops. And of the four sides available, two are potatoes (fries and puffs), and only two are greens -- sauteed spinach and haricots verts. But with that vinaigrette, Bistro 123 would be a good place to follow another French tradition and have your salad after the entree.
You just might forget you're in a shopping mall, at least until you get back in traffic.
Bistro 123 is near Lord & Taylor and across from Circuit City. For the less Tysons-savvy, that means taking the Route 123 exit off the Beltway and getting into the left lane; turn left at the second light, left again into the complex and go straight until you see the Circuit City. Turn right at the stop sign and you'll see the restaurant (no mall access).