The longtime owner of Le Vieux Logis sold the French restaurant in January, which is possibly one of the best things to have happened to “the Old Lodge” in decades. Don’t believe me? Then listen to a mature diner sitting a few tables away and chatting up the new chef.
“We’ve been coming here for years,” I overhear the man in black say to the man in white, Christian Gautrois. “This is the best it’s ever been!”
There are smiles all around as Gautrois, the former chef of Praline, also in Bethesda, shares a few lines of his résumé with a rapt audience of four diners. Born in Champagne, he learned to cook in Paris. His credits in Washington include Gerard’s Place and Maison Blanche (both gone and both missed, I would add). Gautrois, 57, co-owns Le Vieux Logis with his wife, Christa, whose smile is the first you are likely to see at the door.
As a result of the change, clams casino, shrimp cocktail and a chef from El Salvador have left the building. New to the script: steak frites, duck confit and baked Alaska as an occasional dessert special.
The cocktails at Le Vieux Logis remain the size of bird baths — a good thing, in this imbiber’s estimation — while the dining room, its walls festooned with Renoir prints and china plates, continues to show every one of its 34 years. Gautrois promises fresh paint and new carpet in the near future, and they can’t come soon enough. Even so, I appreciate the welcoming bite from the chef, sometimes a sliver of pât é with chutney, that nudges a workweek meal into more festive territory soon after you sit down.
Gautrois’s plates are, for the most part, a stroll down memory lane, to a time when white space was less of an aspiration in restaurant dishes. Ask for chicken breast, and you get not just a centerpiece of crisp skin and moist flesh plumped with mushrooms, but also a small garden of precisely cooked vegetables — carrots, potatoes, scallions — fencing in the bird. Order the veal medallions, and they show up sporting caps of Parmesan, with haricot verts, a fan of crisp potatoes and ratatouille filling in the blanks.
The generous touches sometimes make less of more, as when the kitchen adds cranberry emulsion to an otherwise pleasing appetizer of sliced smoked salmon topped with celery root remoulade. Three, it turns out, is a crowd. (While I’m harping, is it too much to ask for butter served outside foil wrappers?)
All’s right with the duck confit, though, a crackling leg arranged with roasted fingerling potatoes, a vivid orange sauce and juniper-spiked cabbage. We get the dish because the server tells us she watched the chef prepare it and fell in lust with the flavors. Her wide eyes and enthusiastic pitch are all we need to say “oui.”
Aficionados of the classics will enjoy perusing the list, its selections trumpeted in French but described in English. This is old-school fare, eaten to the accompaniment of accordion music some evenings and enjoyed by the AARP crowd. (I would not be surprised to see George Shultz stroll in, looking to relive his Reagan-era days.) Beef broth thick with soft onions and capped with Gruyere makes for a satisfying French onion soup, while Burgundy snails are heralded by the perfume of garlic and butter.
This is, for the most part, competent cooking that would be improved here and there by a dash more salt or a splash more acid. Frisee strewn with meaty lardons and crowned with an egg that becomes dressing when poked could benefit from more tension in the mix. I’d start with more vinegar.
The tender beef filet with a thatch of hand-cut french fries will make the meat eater glad to have ordered steak frites. Veal cheeks are soft enough to cut with a spoon; a mustard sauce gives them heft. Sauteed calf’s liver sweetened with caramelized onions shows up with a splay of thin green beans and a cheesy slab of potato gratin. Thank goodness your cardiologist isn’t watching you clean your plate.
Steer from the French standards, and you might encounter lesser moments. Shrimp wrapped in shredded phyllo, a special one night, starts with a satisfying crunch and ends with dense seafood.
Le Vieux Logis offers a few dishes you don’t see much anymore, including shad — not just the roe, but the prized fish — in its brief season. A shower of slivered almonds and anchovy butter elevate the rite of spring. Pike quenelles are a first-course option, and if the nutmeg-scented blimp of creamed fish in a pool of lobster sauce isn’t the most transporting version I’ve had, it’s still nice to know where to find the antiquity if you want it. (Note to the chef: Don’t leave it under the broiler too long, lest the dish become leathery.) My go-to dessert here is baked Alaska, a big dome of spiked soft meringue enclosing a layer of almond biscuit and a core of mango ice cream. A close second is the pistachio-tinted creme brulee that comes with equally luscious butter cookies.
The new owners kept some of the old support staff, who cater to the clientele as if they have fed them for generations. Visit once or twice, and even if the server doesn’t know you by name, she’s likely to recall your drink of choice. And the busboys are ace.
It’s not just the service or the decor or the food that resurrect kinder, gentler times for diners. The pillow-strewn, linen-draped, carpet-paved Le Vieux Logis is one of the most muted restaurants I’ve encountered in ages.
Dover sole with a side of peace and quiet isn’t the least bit fashionable, but it’s a trend a lot of us could get behind, no?
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