The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2017 Fall Dining Guide.
Chez Billy Sud
The opposite of see-and-be-seen Le Diplomate on 14th Street NW is this intimate spot in Georgetown. A nip in the air is the only excuse I need to book a table for garlicky Burgundian snails and buttery mushrooms spilling out of a tower of puff pastry that shatters on contact with the teeth. A change in seasons might also find me tucking into crisp, sliced duck on a bed of farro and wild rice, the richness of the entree countered by juicy orange segments and an underliner of carrot puree. Honestly, I visit as much for the feel of the bistro as for the taste. Low coffered ceilings, walls the shade of mint and a brick patio do as much to help a diner unwind as Lillet Blanc and a proper steak frites. Chez Billy Sud is nothing if not civilized.
Chez Billy Sud: 1039 31st St. NW. 202-965-2606. chezbillysud.com.
Prices: Mains $9-$38.
Sound check: 77 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
If you eat out with any frequency, you know the question your waiter is likely to drop between “Good evening” and “Let me tell you about the specials.” For the benefit of the rest of you, feel free to eavesdrop on the first few minutes of a recent outing at Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown.
“Any allergies or food restrictions?” a server at the young French bistro asks our group of diners. “Are any of you vegetarians, vegans or raw foodists?” Four of us shake our heads to the obvious relief of the order-taker, who breaks into a wide grin and says, “No? You’re going to enjoy us a lot more that way.”
Meat and butter, booze and pastry: The spinoff of Chez Billy in Petworth is more “Let’s Eat!” than “Let’s Move!” Contrarians are welcome — one of the more intriguing entrees is vegetarian — but to get the full flavor of this replacement to the long-running Cafe La Ruche, it helps to be a pleasure-monger.
Brothers and prolific restaurateurs Eric and Ian Hilton own the two Billys. Of their multiple ventures, among them Marvin, the Gibson and the Brixton, the French accents are my pets. Whereas the original is big and dark and family-friendly early in the evening, Chez Billy Sud (South) is narrow and pale and packed with the kind of clientele that has “probably eaten everywhere in the city,” Ian Hilton says. My preference is for the latter, in part because the food tastes better than it does across town, but also because the recent arrival manages, with just a few details — gold-framed mirrors, a coffered ceiling, sepia-toned nudes in the second-floor restrooms — to affect the air of having been around for a long time. Among other differences between Nord and Sud: Four forms a crowd in the tiny rear marble bar of the second.
Chez Billy Sud, watched over by chef Brendan L’Etoile, is also the increasingly rare mid-range restaurant to drop off warm bread as you ease into a meal and to drape its tables in linens.
Spirited with port and sweet marsala, chicken liver torchon undercuts New Year’s resolutions as it elicits murmurs of appreciation from its recipient. Armagnac-spiked prunes garnish each rich round, presented with toasted raisin-pecan bread for spreading the joys.
Main courses represent a roll call of bistro standards. Beef bourguignon is a raft of braised beef cheek accompanied by pearl onions, crisp lardons and whipped potatoes. Pork sausage dotted with pistachios splays across a bed of green lentils and parsnip puree, good enough to order on their own. Steak frites is a carnivore’s little dream spun from roseate flat-iron steak, thin hot fries and pitch-perfect bearnaise. Lighter (but not by much) are golden trout moistened with lemony caper butter and a trio of sweet scallops backed up with fleshy mushrooms, soft leeks and chive buerre blanc.
The lone vegetarian dish is a singular pleasure: quenelles fashioned from semolina and Gruyere cheese and served with a tomato sauce pricked with crushed red pepper. A salad of crisp shaved fennel on the plate lightens the eating.
A bistro at heart, with main courses averaging $22, Chez Billy Sud finds space on its short wine list for some choice quaffs. Priced as if for a steakhouse downtown, the 2010 Château La Bienfaisance, an $81 Bordeaux blend, makes a magical companion to the heartier meat dishes.
The lunch menu is dinner lite, mostly salads and sandwiches and a handful of main courses, including steamed mussels in a hot bath of pastis, herbs and mustard. A glance around the room in the light of day suggests the Ladies Who Lunch have found a new place to slurp French onion soup — a nice version, by the way, capped with molten cheese and bread swollen with duck stock: a crouton to remember. L’Etoile’s tuna niçoise salad is the most alluring in town, a garland of herb-edged dominos of seared fish strewn with glossy haricot verts, pungent anchovies, halved eggs and downy mache greens. All the art lacks is a frame.
Chez Billy Sud pours as much thought into dessert as it does in the two courses before it; a round of applause, please, for Amanda King, a hire from Osteria Morini on the Capitol Riverfront and the Hiltons’ first pastry chef. Giving rise to her airy cream puffs, three to a plate, are ice creams that change with the season. Winter celebrates salted caramel, marshmallow and coffee, all wonderful. Plump spiced apples and lush brandy caramel mean no crumbs left behind on the apple tart. The star of the lot is a play on cafe au lait, a cup layered with coffee mousse, milk ice cream and creamy mocha cremeux. Drink up! (So to speak).
Does cosseting service make a meal taste better? Chez Billy Sud suggests the answer is oui — for the most part. An oversalted tower of dressed greens and shaved radishes and an oily fish soup that doesn’t taste much of the sea signal a kitchen that doesn’t nail everything all the time. But the restaurant’s strengths outnumber its flaws, evinced by the challenge of booking a table at prime time most nights, a problem that spring and an outdoor patio should mitigate.
With few exceptions (Bourbon Steak, 1789) Georgetown has not been feeding us very well in recent years. The debut of the splashy Fiola Mare on the waterfront last year and the expected arrival of former Palena chef Frank Ruta at the Grill Room in the Capella Washington D.C. hotel this month suggest things in the neighborhood are looking skyward.
Restaurants with star power are nice. But so is a slip of a dining room where the duck confit always crackles and an hour or two feels like Paris, only friendlier.