10223 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda. 564-4910. Open for lunch Monday to Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner Monday to Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Dinner appetizers about $4, entrees $9 to $14. Complete dinner with modest wine, tax and tip about $27 to $34 per person.
BETHESDA IS BECOMING SO UPSCALE these days we wouldn't be surprised to see the Good Humor man selling sorbet or the fire department pumping Perrier onto a runaway mesquite grill. With the increased pizazz has come -- what else? -- more French restaurants. Downtown Bethesda now has Le Marmiton and Cafe Alan in addition to La Miche. And at the Wildwood shopping center, sturdy Saturday afternoon hangouts like People's Hardware and Grand Union have been replaced by Sutton Place Gourmet and by still another French restaurant, Chez Nous.
Chez Nous may not add a lot of excitement or novelty to the dining scene -- the regular menu mainly plays old standards like roast duck with raspberries and steak au poivre -- but it's a solid performer across the board. The small room is handsome in a delicate, pastel-toned way, the service has been quick and accommodating, and, although this is not a cheap restaurant, the prices are moderate in comparison with similar places. Most of the cooking certainly couldn't be described as innovative (although there are sometimes unusual items sprinkled among the daily specials), but that's not what this place is all about. Despite a few bumps here and there, the familiar litany of dishes is prepared with care and finesse, and the sauces and flavorings are mainly on target. Perhaps most important, there's a comforting air of constancy about the place that attests to heads-up quality control -- what's good on Monday can usually be relied on to be good on Friday. Part of the reason is no doubt the discreet but watchful patroling of the dining room by the manager/owners. (The constant checking and the generally good service notwithstanding, some of the waiters could use memory lessons -- it shouldn't be necessary, in serving a party of two, to ask, "Who gets the duck?")
The dining room makes the best of what it has. To play down the room's unusual narrowness and the unavoidable closeness of the tables, the lighting and color scheme are cleverly kept muted, with restful, matte peach walls and accents of dark rose and blue-gray. It's all very pretty, and it works, too, at least on weeknights when there are empty tables here and there to break up the crush. On weekends, when the place is generally filled to capacity, no amount of tranquil coloring can disguise the fact that lots of people are jammed into an area that will scarcely accommodate them. (Space is at such a premium that one night the waiter used a single wine bucket to serve our table and the adjacent one. Drawing an imaginary line between the two bottles in the bucket, he quipped "Pretend this is the 38th parallel.")
Most of the regular appetizers are dependable enough. There's a remarkably lean, nicely garlicky pork-and-lamb p.at,e; good mussels with fresh parsley and plenty of garlic; clams casino, similarly flavored but suffering from occasional toughness (the mussels are a better bet); and a decent but lackluster onion soup. The real appetizer jewels, though, lie among the daily specials. A hot duck p.at,e, for example, rough-textured, quite peppery, beautifully seasoned and in a sauce that echoes the flavor of the bird. Or an appetizer-sized portion of couscous with light, fluffy semolina and a couple of dense, delightfully zippy beef-veal sausages. Or a fine, boldly flavored lobster bisque. Or, at the other end of the intensity scale, fresh-tasting mussel or cream of broccoli soups, soft and subtle.
With so much restaurant bread bad these days, it's especially commendable that Chez Nous serves good, genuinely fresh French bread that seems never to have made the acquaintance of a dough conditioner or spent the night in a refrigerator. Nice work.
Regular entrees? The duck, with its crackly skin, moist flesh and appropriately unassuming raspberry sauce, is a good choice. As is the grilled salmon, fresh, moist and firm, in a tarragon-laced beurre blanc sauce. And the skewered lamb, crusty and pink in the right places. And the calf's liver, delicate, fine-textured and cooked as ordered (but one night accompanied by slices of unripe avocado). And the first-rate veal scallops, virginal to the tenderizing hammer. Shrimp in garlic butter are shrimp in garlic butter -- nice but dull.
More unusual items can often be found among the daily entree specials. There have been outstanding sea scallops, for example, wonderfully fresh and sweet, served with a roe whose flavor seems to encapsulate the essence of the ocean.
Just as remarkable is seafood Wellington, a slice of beautifully flavored grouper-crab-scallop mousse rimmed by a buttery pastry -- this is no bland whip, but a mousse of real character. There has also been reliably good broiled grouper in a simple butter-herb sauce; lovely squid in a butter-cream-saffron sauce; and an excellent, fork-tender roast leg of lamb in a gentle sauce based on the lamb juices. Grilled tuna has been a disappointment -- fresh and carefully cooked, but cut too thin for real succulence and overwhelmed by lemon flavor.
Wine prices are about average, and although the mainly French list isn't extensive, there are some good selections. Among the whites, try the 1982 Graves, silky, clean-tasting and bone dry.
Desserts may not be extraordinary, but they're skillfully done. Made in house are a deep-flavored chocolate mousse studded with bits of dark chocolate; a properly delicate, shimmery cr,eme caramel; crisp-crusted fruit tarts; and profiteroles with an excellent hot fudge sauce. Cakes, imported from Sutton Place Gourmet, sometimes include a delightfully intense mocha cake with enough coffee to keep you up at night.
Chez Nous seems to have everything going for it -- charm, a careful, reliable kitchen, an efficient staff, decent prices. Most of all, it's a restaurant in the right place at the right time. You'll need a reservation.