"Just down the road, on the fringes of Georgetown, is Bistrot Lepic. The French are hardly newcomers to North America, but they're still not exactly assimilated, and in any case, this restaurant is among one of the few "musts" in town. It's small and crowded, but appealing nevertheless. The table settings are unusual, the service good, the by-the-glass section of the wine top-notch. None of this would matter much if the food were ordinary; it is anything but.
It would be hard to better the mussel soup, and the marinated anchovies and the pig's foot are the kind of real European appetizers I long for in one restaurant after another and hardly ever find. On one recent visit, a special was crisp-sautéed rockfish, served on spinach with a bit of tapenade, on another, the nightly offering was filleted salmon wrapped in sautéed potatoes, perfectly done.
As a gaggle of 20- and 30-somethings crowded into Bistrot Lepic's wine bar on a recent Tuesday night, jockeying for a chance to sample free glasses of wine from France's Alsace-Lorraine and Languedoc, owner Bruno Fortin recalled how four years ago he and his partner were unsure whether the bar would succeed.
"I wanted a place where we could go have fun, smoke -- when smoking was allowed," he said. "We did it for ourselves. Then it became popular."
"Popular" may be an understatement. In Washington and other cities across the nation, wine bars are opening at an astonishing rate. Although far from achieving the per-block saturation rate of, say, Starbucks, wine bars are enjoying an urban boomlet that has surprised even some of their proprietors…
…More than any other factor, women are driving the current wine bar boom. Almost every owner and manager interviewed for this story estimated that 90 percent of their customers are female, even though they do not market specifically to women. The lack of hard liquor and of televisions blaring sports events may play a role in these bar's popularity among women, along with women's increased financial independence.
…Bistrot Lepic's wine bar, directly above its main dining room, offers the restaurant's full menu, because diners started demanding more than appetizers with their drinks when the bar first opened. But with its Filipino furniture, whimsical pig paintings and dark lighting, the room has a distinctly different feel from the sunny yellow decor of the main restaurant. It offers between 12 and 14 whites and reds, all of them French.
Because French wines are labeled by region rather than grape varietal, Bistrot Lepic's managing partner, Cyrille Brenac, said he and Fortin decided to hold a free weekly tasting with winery representatives "to democratize the French wine, if you will. Our system is confusing to Americans. We don't go by grapes; we go by region."
Struck recently by NRF — New Restaurant Fatigue — I hopped off the merry-go-round of young establishments and landed in a sliver of a bistro that turned 20 this spring.
My reunion with Bistrot Lepic & Wine Bar in Georgetown reminded me why snails baked in garlic butter and floating island are icons right up there with Catherine Deneuve, and more significantly, what a fine chef Washington has in Swiss native George Vetsch, 56. His résumé has taken him all over town ( C.F. Folks, Oval Room, the late Etrusco), and while I wouldn’t be surprised if he packs in a few more jobs before hanging up his apron for good, I’m tickled that he’s stirring the pot these days at Lepic, which brought him on board a year ago in April.
Easier to reserve than Le Diplomate on 14th Street NW, more varied than Chez Billy Sud near the C&O Canal and friendlier than Montmartre on the Hill, Bistrot Lepic attracts a mature clientele of Francophiles, socialites and diplomats past and present. (Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Kerry have both supped here.) Lepic’s wine bar, open seven nights a week until midnight, is one floor up and of a different character. Each retreat counts singular charms. The ground floor comes with a plat du jour (Monday through Thursday) for $20, and a 20 percent discount on Monday night carry-out orders; upstairs calls to jazz fans with live music on Monday and Wednesday, “appeteasers” and some hits from the dining room, potato-tiled salmon with baby spinach included.
If you’ve never been to Lepic, its name a nod to a street in the 18th arrondissement in Paris, the menu opens with a collection of signatures that explain the restaurant’s longevity. Take those snails: tender, meaty and draped in a grass-green sauce of parsley and basil thickened with almond flour. (You’ve been warned: Ordering the appetizer means overeating bread with it.) Or kidneys accented in classic fashion, with Dijon mustard sauce. Risotto freckled with citrus zest and dotted with grilled shrimp might not sing the way the combination used to (the seafood smacked of lighter fluid one dinner), but we all have off days now and then, n’est-ce pas?
Bistrot Lepic chef George Vetsch has improved the performance of the 20-year-old kitchen. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)
Vetsch says his mission is to “keep it interesting.” (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)
In most cases, Vetsch has not only smoothed out the wrinkles of dishes he inherited, he’s refined them and made them more attractive. Before his arrival, the kitchen served (previously) frozen lamb T-bone. Vetsch replaced it with fresh rack of Colorado lamb. The meat, fabulous with hints of honey, ginger and North African spices, has strong competition in its sidekicks, dauphine potatoes and ruddy, intense eggplant flan. Liver is sliced thicker than before, which lets its meatiness come through; sherry vinegar, capers and olives then work their magic in a sauce for the substantial main course. Before Vetsch, string beans were served year-round. These days, all the vegetables more or less tell the time of year. The chef says his mission is to “keep it interesting.”
That he does. Golden sauteed trout is arranged just so with a salad of julienned onion and apple that’s by turns sweet and sharp, soft and crisp. Keeping the elegant slaw together is house-made mayonnaise. Beige never tasted so good. Crisp herbed chicken alongside saffron-colored, currant-speckled basmati rice is an enticement fueled by a little pitcher of liquefied lemon grass, Thai chilies and more.
Vetsch knows to leave what’s good alone, too. Lepic’s braised veal cheeks, set on cream-sauced seashell pasta and lightened with fresh basil, is the same recipe that has drawn me to the bistro seemingly forever.
I never end a meal at Lepic without the very French ile flottante, whose towering island of meringue, encrusted with slivered almonds, floats on a pool of vanilla custard sauce. A richer end is the warm and satiny chocolate tart.
These and other plates are delivered by a brisk staff that you might recall from visits to Paris, except the Washington crew cracks more smiles.
My mash note to Lepic comes with a caveat. The 48-seat restaurant is not designed for lingering, at least not if you’re the average American. The tables are packed so close together, you find yourself playing footsie with strangers and bumping shoulders with the wall. Diplomats might call the dining room “cozy.” But “claustrophobic” is a more accurate description. Lepic added sound-absorbing panels to its ceiling some years back. It should now consider removing a table or two to give diners more elbow room.
The dim wine bar has a similar problem: lounge chairs so low you sense they were designed for Munchkins and tables without enough real estate for orders bigger than several plates. (The bread basket nestles in a pull-out drawer.) Two out of seven nights at least, live music proves a pleasant distraction.
Downstairs, consolation comes by way of local artist Izette Folger, whose changing paintings complement a reproduction of “Paris Street; Rainy Day” by impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte that has drawn eyes to the rear wall since founding chef Bruno Fortin opened the place in 1995.
A decade ago, Fortin acquired a business partner, former Cafe Milano manager Cyrille Brenac. The men are also co-owners of La Piquette, a younger draw near Washington National Cathedral. Together with chef Vetsch, the trio at Lepic demonstrate the relevance of the old guard — and a welcome respite, however fleeting, from the untested.
Washington restaurants have moved a long way from the days of "Would you like a glass of red or a glass of white?" -- but there are still plenty of us whose eyes glaze over when handed an extensive wine list.
If you spy an unfamiliar bottle at your local liquor store, you can usually cheat by looking at a posted Robert Parker review or scan the label for clues about the wine's origin or the grapes in the blend. Most wine bars and restaurants, on the other hand, merely provide the name of the producer, the appellation and the vintage. If you don't recognize them, you're flying blind.
(Technically, at this point, you should ask the sommelier for advice, but some people worry about being guided toward wines they won't like, and others just refuse to ask for directions. You know who you are.) Wine education courses can require a significant investment of time and money, so here's the next best thing for casual enthusiasts: (...) Bistrot Lepic, a cozy Georgetown French restaurant and wine bar, are trying to spread the gospel of good wine, a few glasses at a time, by letting customers explore their stocks for free.
Bistrot Lepic (1736 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-333-0111) has a comfortable, dimly lit wine bar that is one of my favorite date spots in the city, boasting a romantic atmosphere and a good, if short, list of French wines by the glass. The Gallic spirit extends to the Tuesday night tastings, too, where all selections come from France.
Caveat: The evening's expert is sometimes a representative of the wine importer or the producer, so you're looking at an ethical trade-off. Though certainly not impartial arbiters of the wine's taste and quality, these people are paid to know everything there is to know about the vineyard's grapes, soil and harvest, so they should be able to answer your questions.
Last week, patrons got to sample two champagnes from Heidsieck and Co. Monopole: the Blue Top brut (which happens to be Lepic's top champagne by the glass) and the fruity, summery Rose.
There's no designated tasting area at Lepic, so the champagne house's rep -- a well-dressed, smooth-talking Frenchman -- sidled up to every table soon after the customers arrived. "Would you like to taste some champagne? It's free!" Since no one says no to free bubbly, he'd fetch glasses and a bottle of brut from an ice bucket near the bar. Everyone was served half a flute, along with the salesman's perfunctory pitch: It's made in Epernay, in Champagne. The grapes are mostly pinot noir, with 20 percent chardonnay and 10 percent pinot meunier. It's not as dry as some others. How do you like it?
A few minutes later, a second glass appears: this time, the soft pink Rose. The process repeats itself.
I've found that I enjoy the evening more when my friends and I snag a seat at the bar and let Ted, the longtime bartender, serve as our guide for the evening. A few weeks ago, the night's free selections included a dry, easy-drinking Puligny-Montrachet from Louis Latour. "If you like that, do you want to try a little flight?" he asked. He picked two other whites from the house list, and we had an enjoyable time sampling half-glasses. It's easy on the wallet, too: On Tuesday nights, every wine on the list, whether by the glass or full bottle, is discounted 20 percent.
The tasting dates sometimes change. If you're curious about what wines will be offered or want to stay on top of the schedule, sign up for the restaurant's e-mail list at http://www.bistrotlepic.com.
"State Department types, nostalgic for their years in Paris, assuage their yearnings at Bistrot Lepic. A photomural of Gustave caillebotte's "Paris Street, Rainy Day" sets the Montmartre scene, brightened by sunflower yellow walls. The menu makes gestures to the slim ladies who lunch at the small tables with good gardeny salads, without neglecting heart bistro classics like mussel-studded leak-and-potato soup and inch-thick slices of calf's liver."
"Even if you're not Dan Snyder, there are several ways, short of winning the lottery, to experience high-end restaurants. One is to save up and splurge once a year. Another involves visiting them at non-peak hours: Plenty of upscale dining rooms entice early birds with pre-prime time. Still another tack is to go for a place that has a separate bar menu, which is why I recently found myself lunching at the counter at Galileo and nibbling into the night at Bistro Lepic's new second-floor retreat.
PIGS INSINUATE themselves everywhere at the wine bar above Bistrot Lepic. They turn up on the list of cocktails, where a request for a "Bistrot Le Pig" brings you an eye-opener of rum, triple sec and three tropical fruit juices. Pigs decorate the orange-colored walls, too, in the form of cartoonlike paintings. Bite into the soothing onion tart, nestled on a fluff of greens, and you''ll probably notice a hint of... bacon. "It's a play on words," explains Bruno Fortin, the restaurant's chef-owner (Lepic, le pig—get it?).
What used to be a handsome private space where Fortin cooked for small dinner parties has evolved into a relaced wine bar serving almost a dozen small plates of food, goofily called "appeteasers." Two or three of these pretty and generous snacks, most bearing a French stamp, add up to a satisfying meal for a bit less than you'd pay for a typical order of first course and entree in the main restaurant downstairs. This in a neighborhood short on comfortable watering holes.
Anything involving starch is apt to please, be it that fresh onion tart or tender brased veal cheeks tucked inside pillows of puff pastry and lapped with a vegetable-sweetened cream reduction. Silvery anchovies arranged over thin and buttery puff pastry are another winner. Soon the table is crowded with plates, as one good dish leads to another. Thin slices of pink foie gras terrine garnished with tiny roasted pears are followed by an equally refined lamb tagine. And small singed red peppers, fattened with a pure of salt cod and potato, vanish almost as quickly as hey show up.
Still another plate combines shredded green papaya and diced mango, flecked with crab and bright with red fish roe, which provides a saline counterpoint to the subtle papya and rich seafood. "It's not French, but it's refreshing, no?" asks Fortin. An occasional presence here, he makes an easy host, circulating around the small room to check up on his guests, some of whom are using this as a rest stop before dinner downstairs.
In contrast to the sunny dining room, which is Provencal in spirit, the wine bar, designed by Fortin's wife, Eva Claudio, marries East with West. Rattan couches, chairs in egg-cup shapes, low tables and a ceiling painted to look like a night sky all place the wine bar in some Indonesian resort. One of the few design nods to Paris is a dark mural depicting a late-night cafe scene. And, as you might expect, the wine list has a Gallic accent; the selection of whites, mostly chardonnays, is bested by the reds, which embrace a variety of regions (think Gigondas and Costieres de Nimes) and respected small producers."
"If you're the type who likes to feel special when dining out (and if you're not, what's wrong with you?), start thinking small. Small is sensational at the following intimate eateries where you'll enjoy the coziest dining, the chummiest service, more than a little fun and food so delicious you'll want t eat every tiny crumb.
One of the most charming places to enjoy great French bistro fare is the terrifically tiny Bistrot Lepic. Chef-owner Bruno Fortin named his little storefront after a street in arty Montmartre in Paris. He attributes his culinary skills to work at the restaurant Dagorno and the Terrace Hotel — both fine Parisian dining establishments. So why did he come to Georgetown to be a small-timer?
"I see every plate and have more control for my quality," he says, adding, "Our clientele like that it is very small because we know them and they don't get disturbed. On Sunday nights, it feels like regulars don't even bother with placing orders anymore. The all-French, ever loyal staff memorizes drink preferences, knows favorite menu options and automatically takes care of every detail. Inviting and open, the Bistrot harbors only 15 tables and seats a maximum of 45.
There is no such thing as a small secret, of course, and the news about Bistrot Lepic's extraordinary food and atmosphere is out. Fortin admits that notables like Tom Brokaw, Jim Lehrer, and Donna Shalala are among his frequent patrons, along with other bigwigs who come in from time to time, but "a lot of people I don't know because I don't have time to watch TV!" he confesses. The beef medallions served with soft polenta and shiitake mushroom sauce is mouthwateringly delicious; the salmon in potato crust with fresh grapes and Ouzo sauce is fab; and Fortin's fresh-made desserts are worth every calorie."
"Most of its clientele lives within walking distance and is of a generation that remembers when French cuisine ruled in Washington and probably knows that Lepic chooses to use the old-fashioned spelling of "bistro." One can gather from conversations that patrons who don't live in the neighborhood have been invited by friends who want to show them "their" restaurant. At lunch and dinner, you can count on seeing almost as much tweed and worsted flannel as you would at Brooks Brothers.
Chef-owner Bruno Fortin's menu is a well-balanced list of bistro classics, regional specialties and contemporary dishes. Some of the good things here from both the seasonally changing menu and the recited list of daily specials—are mussel soup; herring with potatoe;: baby artichokes braised with aromatic vegetables and salt pork; wonderful dish of braised veal cheeks; crumb-crusted slices of boned pig's feet with garlicky sauteed potatoes; potato-crusted salmon; and, welcome in this cold season, a very good cassoulet."
"It's one thing to burst through the borders of traditional cooking, but it can be comforting when a chef sticks closer to home. That's exactly what Bruno Fortin does at Bistrot Lepic in Washington, D.C. The Brittany native with his wife, Cécile, offers the tried-and-true classics — country pâté with prunes and Armagnac, for instance. But there are also well priced interpretations of other, rather unexpected dishes, like quail that is stuffed with goat cheese and toasted semolina and sauced with a port jus; and grilled tuna with a mint and tomato vinaigrette. It is a refreshing spot in which to relax, sip some wine, have a good meal, and watch the passing scene through the big front window."