Unrated during the pandemic

Closing one of the city’s best-known dining rooms after 27 years wasn’t the hard decision its fans might think it was. Just ask its owner.

“The Oval Room had run its course,” says Ashok Bajaj of the restaurant situated an easy stroll from the White House. While a roster of talented chefs — Bryan Moscatello, John Melfi, Tony Conte — made sure a stream of VIPs — Nancy Pelosi, Ty Cobb, seemingly every ambassador in town — was fed well over the decades, the twin challenges of the pandemic and the 2020 protests downtown helped seal the fate of the Oval Room. By the end, in the fall, the restaurant had switched to serving sandwiches for takeout.

Bajaj figured something French would make a suitable successor. Given that he already has American, Indian, Italian and modern Israeli restaurants in his portfolio, a Gallic entry “complements the group,” he says. He also wanted something livelier than before. “People want an uplift” after being stuck at home for so long. “I wanted a fun name,” too, says the man who famously visits all his restaurants every day. He chose La Bise, “the kiss,” partly for the way the French words roll off the tongue.

As for a chef, Bajaj looked to Boston and Troquet on South, where Tyler Stout served as executive chef for almost three years. Washingtonians may have sampled his cooking before; Stout, soon to be 31, previously worked at Fiola, 1789 and Macon Bistro & Larder.

In word and deed, he’s demonstrating how the past year has influenced his thinking. The chef says he wants La Bise to be thought of as other than a special occasion restaurant — “not too stuffy” and “not too high.” La Bise won’t be serving a $175 tasting menu, he says. That leaves plenty of room for polished whimsy. Order the $10 gougeres, and the light cheese puffs come with a little surprise: Comte espuma, or foam, inside their delicate shells.

Stout’s opening acts might sound familiar, but he has a way of making each his own. Kampachi crudo brings the expected thinly sliced raw fish. Topping it, however, are see-through slices of stone fruit — plums one visit, peaches another — along with the everywhere garnish, Fresno chile, and nutty puffed sorghum. Crudo tends to be refreshing; Stout makes it more so by serving the kampachi in a lick of clear tomato water. Between that and the stone fruit, it’s the equivalent of easing into a cool pool on a hot day. Sweet bites of butter-poached lobster mingle with elegant potato rounds and celery leaves in another seafood draw, set on sauce Americaine, which gets a lift from crushed tomatoes, saffron, onions and wine.

Raise your hand if you Netflixed “My Octopus Teacher” and swore off the sea animal afterward. A little distance from the underwater love story found me slicing into a fried tentacle at La Bise, mostly because I wanted to taste what the chef paired with the octopus: toasted hazelnuts and a tip of the chapeau to a “Veronique” approach — green grapes hit with espelette pepper and tufts of foam coaxed from champagne, grape juice, butter and more.

Stout makes everything on his charcuterie board but the earthy Bayon ham, which looks like prosciutto but has a drier texture. The meaty spread embraces duck rillettes, head cheese made from delicious pig parts and hinting of star anise, and caramelized onions, which are dark, sticky and swollen with reduced balsamic vinegar. The only flaw in the picnic is the accompanying tasteless white bread, a detail not in keeping with the otherwise high standards of the kitchen.

Another first course, ricotta dumplings, were dense and pasty when I tried them, although a shower of sweet corn, Pecorino cheese and chanterelles did their best to distract the tongue.

Now and then, a chef comes up with something that launches legions of copies. The molten chocolate cake created by New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten made such an impression; versions of it trickled down to fast-food menus. And rare is the Indian restaurant in Washington that doesn’t feature some version of the fabulous palak chaat introduced by Vikram Sunderam at the original Rasika. The most talked-about main course at La Bise is salmon coulibiac, basically a fish version of beef Wellington in which a band of puff pastry and mushroom duxelles form a frame around the salmon and rice tinted with parsley puree. Visiting on Bastille Day, a friend texted me: “the salmon entree made me weep!” While I didn’t shed any tears when I ate it, the coulibiac, based on a Russian recipe, did prompt me to whip out my phone and take a photo of the dish, pretty in pink and green and displayed on a thick and lemony butter sauce. I might not have cried, but I liked the art enough to ask for half of it to be wrapped for later appreciation, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see replicas around town down the line.

You can find a proper steak frites at La Bise. But the superior red meat is the butter-basted duck breast served as a bar alongside rich confit leg on a sunny yellow corn sauce decorated with pickled blueberries.

Stout wanted a vegetarian main course on par with the rest of his menu, and the North Carolina native has it with a tomato tart that uses as its base an herbed biscuit, in which summery pesto and buttery burrata also add their charms.

A petite souffle is the most theatrical way to conclude dinner. The cherry flavor, however, is but a whisper. I welcome everything about the Paris-Brest: its tender round of choux pastry, its creamy whipped filling, the gentle crunch of praline and slivered almonds in each bite. Meanwhile, tiny housemade marshmallows sometimes sweeten the drop of the check. (“We have a lot of egg whites” left over from cooking, says the chef.)

The reimagined interior gives diners the “uplift” the owner sought. Bajaj kept the collection of lights in the center of the main dining room that could pass for illumination on a film set. But he changed just about every other detail. More booths mean more privacy, a nice accessory given the restaurant’s proximity to the corridors of power (or really, anyone hoping to have a personal conversation). The walls are splashy in dark blue, and what aren’t paintings are 1,000 small mirrors in a 3-D art installation. For the first time ever, thanks to an open kitchen near the front bar, the chef at this address is on display.

Designed for fun, La Bise delivers. (Among the drinks you’ll want to try is — get ready for it — La Bise Knees.) Better yet, the newcomer also feels built to last.

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La Bise 800 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-463-8700. labisedc.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday: Prices: Appetizers $10 to $19, main courses $25 to $38. Accessibility: No barriers at entrance; ADA-compliant restrooms.