Fair French Fair
[from September 2000 issue]

No one can argue with the obvious popularity of one of Dupont Circle's newest hot spots: Bistrot du Coin, close to the corner of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, where for many years Food for Thought reigned. It jumps. It sings. It swings. This is one trendy place, a French bistro, with all the casual, so-what attitude that implies. But best of all, it stays open late-late so the after-movies crowds can still tuck into a cassoulet du Bistrotier (white bean stew with sausage, pork, lamb, and duck), or a serving of tripes a la Niçoise, a beef tripe stew with tomatoes.

Seem a bit heavy for a midnight snack? Sure, these are better suited for dinner--the only time these and the veal and rabbit stews are served, says one restaurant spokesman--but many other dishes are not meant for the American on the run, or the American about to go back to the office and try to work for the afternoon.

Consider the gratin d'endive au jambon, which by the menu description sounds benign, if not exactly light-weight: braised endive with French ham, Swiss gruyère, and a béchamel sauce. What you don't figure from the menu is that the endive is here a minor player, rather like an afterthought, and that this hearty (and yes, delicious) entrée at a reasonable price is actually all about melting hot cheese, ladlesful of rich béchamel, and ham wrapped around the very thoroughly cooked endive. Filling and rich enough for an all-day skier just down from the slopes, it's a bit overwhelming for a sedentary soul on a hot summer's day. Whew!

The cautionary note is this: Don't come here planning on some typical light/lite American kind of midday meal that's kind to the budget. The closest you'll get to that is one of the tartines, sandwich-like offerings that resist comparisons to hearty heroes slathered with mayo and mustard and crammed full of meats, cheeses, and greens. These tartines with their inviting names--tartine a la tapenade with ham and cheese, tartine en Bayaldi with eggplant and vegetables, and tartine Parisienne with French ham, gruyère, and béchamel--for my money fall somewhere between entrée sandwich and appetizer.

Perhaps the best bet is to strike a happy medium, selecting the French onion soup--a triumph of melted cheese over beef stock and softened onions--and one of the salades plates (salad with Roquefort, Bibb lettuce salad with vinaigrette, or the mesclun salad with vinaigrette) and head straight to dessert.

Desserts here deserve, and presumably get, respect. Interpretations of various French classics--crème brûlée, apple tart, chocolate mousse, and a clafouti, plus two creations called La Tropézienne (a brioche with custard, orange water and crème anglaise) and crème Mont Blanc--these may by the shining moments of Bistrot du Coin's kitchen. The clafouti, though slightly unusual, is a puffy batter that bakes up around cherries (several are preserved Bing cherries that, one suspects, have been hanging out in brandy for awhile) and floating in a custard sauce. Other guests had the apple tart, which looked just as tempting, if not as unusual.

But man or woman cannot live by clafouti alone. So what does that do for the rest of the meal? Dinners are not a problem, since then overeating is the task of anyone going out for a meal. You might as well just give in and do what many of the other customers were up to: Settle on a big bowl of mussels (which come here cooked in several different styles), or order the obviously popular grilled steak with frites, not too pricey for a small steak accompanied by a big mound of crispy, hot fries. Another possibility is the roast chicken half with frites or the small raviolis with a cream sauce with gruyère.

Another tip: Plan your visit here at an off-hour. The crowds are dense and at peak times, you will wait for a table, that's almost a given. And the noise is intense. Acoustics, apparently, were not high on the decorator's list when remodeling the site. Sure Bistrot du Coin is funky, but at high noon, you may not be able to hear your friend speak, particularly because the tables are squeezed together.

But we can all thank Bistrot du Coin's popularity: It has alerted us to DC's substantial list of French eateries, proving that this cuisine is alive and well around town. If you don't believe that, try getting a table at Bistrot Lepic, an equally popular and more upscale place on Wisconsin, or fight the crowds at Bistro Français, which swings in G'town come later hours.

Bistrot du Coin, 1738 Conn. Ave.; tel., 234-6969. Open: Lunch, Tue.-Sat.; Dinner, nightly. Entrée prices: $5.95-$22.50.


Whoa! Did you know that September is National Sandwich Month? You can make a month of it by combining a favorite bagel flavor at any one of the city's Einstein Bros' locations and selecting a bagel sandwich, or in fact, any one of several hearty sandwich choices, from rollups to baguette-based and challah sandwiches. Their yummy sandwich choices include such over-the-top combos as the Club Mex, a traditional layering with the added bite of peppered bacon, a pepper Jack cheese, and a zesty ancho-lime mayo on a challah roll. Or consider the roasted chicken and smoked gouda on a baguette, or a Thai chicken and veggie roll up, or the hot EBBQ chicken on a potato bagel. Sandwiches, sandwiches, sandwiches with a bagel difference.

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