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  • Reservations Recommended

    Frankly French = Bistro La Bonne

    Considering that everyone is talking about eating green this and local that, what’s getting lost in the chatter is this: can that chef cook?

    If you seek a bit of culinary heaven, I’ll let you in on a big secret: Bistro La Bonne on U Street has a chef who knows the kitchen score. His cooking is first rate, and his food is dramatically good, perhaps some of the very best you will ever taste in DC. He may not preach green eats, but he sure knows how to assemble a meal. And odds are that his ingredients are as first rate and fresh as his meals.

    Take the French onion soup. A popular first course at upscale restaurants, this dish is often a watery, pale image of the true classic soup, rich with a heady beef broth that is intense and winey, plus sweet from gently melted onions. And, of course, those extra somethings which are the chef’s herbal add-ons. In a hurry to ready it, most chefs lack the patience needed to draw out and amplify flavors. But not this guy, whose classic soup is redolent with the intense flavors of onions and beef stock properly paired, and textured with plenty of baguette slices and creamy, melted cheese. Properly forewarned, you might just want to settle for a bowl or two — the soup is filling and satisfyingly so — and then head to the dessert menu.

    But then you’d miss out on the chef’s big scorers: the entrées. As for these, don’t study the menu online, because you will spend too much time weighing your options: spiced duck breast with duck confit in a port wine sauce?; Cassoulet Toulousain of cannelloni beans cooked with duck, sausage, lamb, and bacon?; Boeuf Bourguignon, one of those Julia Child kind of dishes reserved for VIPs?; and braised short ribs? So many temptations, and only one meal at a time.

    What does the sensible foodie do? Select none of the above, and try out the coq au vin, another tricky dish that calls for a skilled chef, quality ingredients, and patience at the stove. What arrives is a large bowl filled with an intense wine-enriched sauce surrounding pearl onions, a carrot chunk or two, cubed bacon, and a chicken leg, thigh, and piece of boneless breast. On the top, the chef layers freshly made tortellini, a slight departure from the traditional French presentation. All that’s missing is a large soupspoon to scoop out the last drops of sauce. And more bread, please.

    Be sure to set aside enough time here to order dessert, and of the sweets on the menu, the restaurant’s classic and the rather old-fashioned dessert, floating island (or, as the menu lists it, ile flottante) may well win a prize for its nostalgia value, if not for its sublime execution. Often the meringue — cooked until it turns chewy rather than remaining delicate and airy like a slice of cloud — comes here like that cloud slice afloat in a vanilla cream sauce that has been intensified with the finest drizzle of caramel. It’s a dessert that is really like a childhood memory of a soft custard, the finest way to end any kind of meal.

    Added to the overall sense of Frenchness here: colorful French posters from various eras, brick walls, a red-tiled floor, and overhead ceiling fans. The downstairs kitchen must surely provide ample exercise for staff, especially when carrying plates to the upstairs loft seating. All that said, Bistro La Bonne is a welcome addition to the burgeoning U Street Corridor. Bon chance!.

    Bistro La Bonne / 1340 U St., NW; (202) 758-3413. Hours: lunch, Tue.-Fri. 11:30am-2:30pm; dinner, Mon.–Sun. 5pm-midnight; brunch, Sat. & Sun. 11am-4pm. Entrée price range: $15.95-$23.95.

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    Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Click here to visit her website.