Open Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. Biarritz Cafe, 683-1448, open daily 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. BA, MC, AE
Food: Good French food with Basque touches
Style: Service outshines the food and the setting
THE VERY WORD Basque stirs dreams of spicy and robust cuisine in those who know what that babies of that mountainous sector of France and Spain start life having their lips rubbed with garlic and moistened with wine. See a Basque restaurant and one speculates about garlicky alternatives to the usual onion soup-quenelles-caneton a l'orange French restaurant routine.But La Bergerie, a Basque restaurant in Alexandria, gives us only a token Basque dish in each quaise for entree, galette basquaise for dessert). Other than that it remains just another French restaurant.
Comfortable. Professional. With some very good food. But just another suburban French restaurant with downtown prices.
Transplanted from Arlington to Alexandria's new Crilley Warehouse shopping arcade, La Bergerie won and lost in the process. Most obviously, it won space - enough room between tables to afford some privacy. What it lost was charm. The brick-walled dinning room is comfortable and decorated with restrain but looks like a furniture store display of Americanized Country French: Royal blue and red for the fabrics. A few paintings and plates on the walls. Fresh flowes the nicest decorative touch - a single blossom in a silver bud vase on each table, and flowers even in the ladies' room.
In La Bergerie the talent is concentrated in the front of the house, where the efficiency of the dining room is overlaid with good cheer. From maitre d'hotel to bus boy, the manner is professional without being stiff. The menu is explained with patience, the wines are left to breathe, the dishes are all placed before the right person.
The back of the house is less consistent. The tournedos were cooked with precision, the snapper slightly overcooked, the quenelles a bit undercooked. An oversalted madeira sauce contrasted with a bland cream sauce and a wan hollandaise.
It all keeps balancing - nothing dreadful, but not much to remember. Eggs benedict were cooked to their ideal runny stage, but the lamb we ordered rare didn't come close. The ingredients are honorable - delicate calf's liver, nutty-tasting ham, full-flavored beef. The salad greens crackle. But the parsley garnishing our luncheon plates had not been washed, nor had our artichoke been properly drained after it had been cooked to a flaccid stage. The duck at dinner was soggy, hardly defatted, its orange suce cloying.
Lest this sounds more dismal than the overall impression warrants, let me recall a creamy rich Basque fish soup, intense and peppery, a velvety contrast to its butter-crisped croutons. Fresh, aromatic mussels in garlic butter. And alongside the main dishes were remarkable buttery rice and memorably garlicked grilled tomato. It is nit-picking to make much of the slightly overweight texture of the potato puffs, the excess of pickle in the brains vinaigrette, or of garlic in the piperade, an otherwise delectable soft mass of eggs scrambled with peppers, tomatoes and onions under a blanket of paperthin ham. For all this, if one evaluates La Bergerie in light of its Alexandria neighbors, it competes with the best. But downtown Washington is only minutes away . . . And with dinner main courses averaging $8 or $9, appetizers averaging over $2, and desserts around that same price, La Bergerie has priced itself into competition with downtown. Even its wine prices - from a commendable list which cleverly allows the management to write in which vintages are available - are high, with hardly anything under $12. You can expect to spend $25 at dinner with no trouble. And lunch can readily run $15, main courses starting at $4.
What does stand proudly against its Washington competitors is the pastry at La Bergerie.Galette Basque, a tart with a crust akin to shortbread and a filling of heady almond custard, is so good it compensates for a lot of flaws in the rest of the meal. And the strawberry tart in a fragile cookie crust is layered with a fine liqueaur-tinged pastry cream and roped with deliciously glazed berries. The pastries are made in the house in great variety, and only the puff pastry creations such as napoleons have lately been found wanting.
As for La Bergerie's Biarritz Cafe, except for the pastry shop in front, it can be bypassed with no regret. Its slow service would be bearble if either the setting were more charming than a department store or the food were delectable. But the same floury, bland cream sauce smothered everything from the deviled ham-flavored veal and chicken crepe to the croque monsieur. The quiche seems safe if you insist on lunch there, since it is based on the flaky crust of their talented pastry chef. Main dishes run around $3, but you are better off concentrating on pastries and coffee. Otherwise, you eat better in La Bergerie itself.
At La Bergerie one has the distinct impression that they mean well. And they do well. But at those prices they should do better.