Plaudits: Washingtonian 2010 #14, Washingtonian 2009 #22, Washingtonian 2008 #27
Neighborhood: Union Station
Oh Restaurant Week. It was during last year's RW that the whole idea of this blog came to a head. Like I've said before, I'm a pro-RW kind of guy. Yea, I understand the anti-RW people (my blog partner CC chief among them), but as I've said before, it's not a chef cooks any less well two weeks out of the year because the crowds are maybe a skooch less savvy. And in this world of social media, can a restaurant really risk the publicity hit? So, yes I'll give restaurants the benefit of the doubt if there are issues during Restaurant Week, but if it's good then just imagine what it would be like normally (see: Rasika, Art and Soul).
On this occasion, Official Friend of DCWD Jax drew first in the lineup and off we went to last year's RW favorite, Bistro Bis.
Bistro Bis, for me, epitomizes the look of the modernized American bistro. Shades of brown and tan abound, framed by interruptions of white. The atmosphere has an orange glow to it, influenced by the dim lights and the constant presence of a buzz, which grows to a dull roar at the peak of the dinner hour. These kinds of places always have a motif of wine bottles and booze glasses, a theme punctuated in this restaurant by the very visible wine cellar as you walk in. The decor, outside of the glassware is two-fold: mirrors and the ubiquitous Cappiello-style posters, a line of which hang above the open kitchen.
Bistro Bis separates itself into several tiered dining areas. First there's the bar and the lounge, followed by some black tables and booths. Down a few set of steps is another set of booths and a row of two-tops, and a few steps further, what could be called the main dining area: a similar row of two-tops and a wide variety of four-tops and round tables. In this sense, Bistro Bis is a restaurant perfect for groups; a party of six has a myriad of options, but the two-tops are almost stacked on top of each other in a line on either side of a small counter. Given its location a stone's throw from the lobbyist heaven of Capitol Hill, this is not the least bit surprising; it's just that privacy of conversation might be hard to have on a busy night if you're only taking one other person there.
Most of the time, RW menus are limited to two or three choices, a convention that Bistro Bis bucks, offering some 10-12 options for each of the first two courses, with minimal upcharges.
For the appetizers, Jax and I both went standard French with dishes that incidentally my mother always used to make varieties of growing up. I went with a dish I thoroughly enjoyed the year before: the vichyssoise, a traditional French soup of potato, leeks, and cream topped with chives, and in this case, bacon and brioche, and served cold. It's not often that I'll double up on a dish (we'll get to that in just a second), but this was one I will absolutely go back to time and time again. Creamy yet refreshing, the soup was just heaven on the palate especially with the frequent bites of salt and savory from the bacon, and the sweet of the brioche.
Jax got the beet salad au citron, composed of roasted heirloom beets and arugala with goat cheese, walnuts, and orange and topped with a citrus-infused olive oil. Beets, like avocados before them, were something I was slow to take to at first, but as the necessary vehicle to my goat cheese addiction in my childhood, I learned to love them. Like the vichyssoise, this salad was a touchstone to my mom's version of the classic French dish, but with some very welcome additions. The beets were amazingly roasted, and the addition of citrus gave the dish a fantastic tang. And of course, the goat cheese: I'd paired goat cheese with beets, and goat cheese with oranges, but never all three. Such a treat.
For the entrees, I decided to bypass the delights from last year (the duck confit and the pork belly) in favor of trying something new and more adventurous: in this case the fricassee de veau marengo, a braised veal stew with artichokes, tomato confit, garlic, zucchini, olives, all in a dijon-caper sauce. I will say this: the sauce was aggressive, with a tartness that was probably brought out by the artichokes. The stew though was solid, the meat braised so well that the meat fell apart in that wonderful stringy way. Aside from the minor displeasure, it was a good dish.
Jax went with the rockfish barigoule, a sauteed filet with braised artichokes, fennel, carrots, and an olive oil-basil nage. Here's some fun facts about this dish from just the description: barigoule is a traditional artichoke preparation from Provencale, while cooking some a la nage means preparing it in a stock of white wine, vegetables and herbs, and presenting it on top of said vegetables. With that explanation, the dish makes perfect sense in hindsight, a fairly savory dish despite the lightness of its component ingredients. If anything, Jax thought it might have been a tad bit oversalted, but I thought the flavors were pretty good, and we both agreed that the inclusion of the rockfish's crispy skin was a definite plus.
Dessert for Jax was a gateau de mascarpone, a coffee genoise layered with Bavarian cream and a mocha sauce. The spongecake was a hair drier than I would have preferred, but the cream was nice and the flavors were right. Then again, as a man who loves his tiramisu, this was right up my alley.
My choice was an olive oil torte Provencale, an olive oil polenta genoise with a lemon blueberry chiboust and a blueberry coulis. There were some problems here; first the chiboust tasted and felt more like a chocolate ganache. The genoise was also a tad firm and dry, though it did have a faint honey aftertaste that was pleasant. Not the worst, not the best.
The eternal debate: do you give a place you know is capable of better from a previous experience a break? In this case, considering my fond memories of the food, and the way the vichyssoise measured up to my memory, sure. But there were enough issues with some of the dishes, that I can't in good faith give it that half-star bump that I feel it could've reached. Same for the hearts: beautiful dining room but it's worth reiterating that the two-tops are on top of each other.
Food Rating: **** (out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Smart Casual
Bar Rating: Classy Crowd
Vibe: Chatty to Energetic
Cost: $$$$ (out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
Pairing: Union Station is one of the more underrated spaces in DC, between its regular shopping, its various special events, and its appeal to transportation nerds. Perhaps not a date on a regular day (unless your date loves Taco Bell), but during events like National Train Day or during the Christmas season, it's lovely.