Open for lunch Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner Monday through Thursday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., Sunday 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. MC, V. Reservations suggested on weekends. Prices: appetizers $2 to $4; main courses $7.75 to $10.75; quiches, omelets, salads and sandwiches $3 to $5; desserts $2 to $3.
In Georgetown, one usually has the choice of good food, moderate prices, attractive environment, solicitous service or a compelling menu. But rarely more than one or two at a time. Tout Va Vien allows you to choose all of the above, with only a little compromising here and there.
A year ago it was an empty little French cafe with a few menu selections that reminded me of La Ruche in its early days. And the food was not even good enough to draw me back for another look. But the fact that the tarts were assembled to order indicated promise, so I kept an ear out for news of this restaurant. The sounds were good. And during the winter I returned to find this cafe on its way: good food, expanded menu, much more in order than on my first visit. But I ; was wary, so gave it more time.
My last visit established it in my book as a solidly agreeable restaurant, small and, to be sure, casual, in all a good value. Plush it is not. The tables are bare marbleized plastic, the seats fabric-covered benches around its perimeter and simple chairs, the decorations limited to some framed prints. Not elaborate. Not spacious. Not dim or quiet. The typical environment of an Americanized French cafe.
While the menu maintains a standing list of quiches, a couple of sandwiches, omelet, salads and a chicken Kiev, the culinary interest centers on the list of daily specials, over a dozen main courses and half a dozen appetizers. Most of the main dishes are under $10, and so many of them are appealing that you might make a point to go with several people who are willing to share tastes.
In the past few years, Washington's restuarants have increasingly recognized that the public seeks ingredients that are fresh and seasonal, so they are no surprise at Tout Va Bien. But this restuarant finds some fresh uses for them as well. Liver is a steady favorite in this city, and a particular favorite at Tout Va Bien. No wonder; it is delicate and tender meat, not only perfectly sauteed, but topped with slices of avocado that suit it well and sauced with shallots and herbs and a light wash of brown sauce. Delightful dish. Several fish are regularly on the menu, but with something new about them each time. One day fresh tuna, flounder, trout, salmon, swordfish and softshell crabs were all listed, plus a seafood combination that was lightly floured and sauteed with garlic butter (the shrimp unfortunately overcooked to a slight toughness but the scallops of gentler texture). Or one could have skewered lamb, chicken with five kinds of peppers or pork loin. The house special was a chicken leg boned and stuffed with sausage, topped with sauteed mushrooms -- a fine idea and robust combination of flavors, but the chicken meat was overcooked and soggy. Not a successful dish, but it had satisfactions to counteract its flaws.
And in any case, the main dishes are framed well, with perfectly cooked sliced carrots adding a bright note, and the usual boiled potatoes. The breads are epis, those charming French loaves of rolls stuck together into one long twig. The wine list is short but decently priced. An appetizers and desserts have individuality.
Soups have been erratic, but my last visit found them just fine. Apple and curry soup was subtle, neither too fiery nor too sweet, very soft and creamy. Lobster bisque was pungent, peppery, and rich with the concentrated flavor imparted by lobster shells; since there is no lobster on the menu, it would be astonishing if the lobster flavor originated in the kitchen, but the end result was a creamy, flavorful soup.
One of the prettiest dishes in any modest French restaurant is Tout Va Bien's spinach pate, a rectangle of dark green, banded with white fat and centered with a pale, rosy chicken liver and cubes of pink ham. It tends to be overseasoned with nutmeg, but maintains a freshness and lightness, and is deliciously garnished with cucumbers seeded and dressed with an especially good mayonnaise. Several other pates, soups and cold vegetables are on the menu to begin the meal.
But desserts are given even greater care. Several tarts are listed each day, their asset being their last-minute assembly of fresh fruit or berries with a light custard on a base of still-crisp puff pastry. It is a refreshment after seeing, even at otherwise excellent restaurants, fruit tarts that are soggy, with gelatinous glazes and floury custards. There is also a gateau maison, the buttery cake base topped with fresh fruits and real buttercream. Two mousses are also on the list, a white and dark chocolate, or a combination of both. Nice thought, but they taste more like confectioners' sugar frosting than mousse.
Spirit and energy count for a lot here. The staff frequently check whether dinner is all right, and this is a place where you can expect your glasses to be refilled and your serving to be paced to your needs.
Fresh ideas, the details that compensate the flaws, food that is above the routine but not complicated, moderate prices at Tout Va Bien add up -- not to a brilliant star among restaurants, but to a nice place to eat. A city never has too many of them.