Setting out to dominate the south side of the 300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Spike Mendelsohn’s new concept strayed from the comfort/fast food food formula and ventured a bit more upscale: Béarnaise, located at 315 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, is a steak-and-frites bistro with a well-stocked bar. Formerly in the space of Thai Roma (which never really attracted this writer on account of what sounded like an odd mixture of cuisines), the space is airy and well-appointed: the checkered floors, mercury glass and Belle Époque décor make it a lovely place to have dinner. Even the bathrooms are wallpapered and chic, if minuscule and not really accessible-looking. The service on the day we visited (Saturday right after opening day) was deferential and friendly: I went for an early dinner with my family, and everyone was genuinely kind and accommodating. The food was very good, and there is no better way to keep two fiddly, squirmy boys happy than to tell them they get UNLIMITED FRIES. Two sets of eyes twinkled until the food coma set in.
(Aside: when trying a new place, I like bringing in my whole entourage as often as possible. I find that if a place is willing to be helpful and kind to little patrons, it will generally be a good experience for fussier eaters of the grown-up variety.)
Let me get one thing off my chest: I find Béarnaise to be a bit overpriced. Yes, this is definitely not We, The Pizza or Good Stuff (and it’s no longer 1994, when we balked at a five-dollar milkshake). It’s also a worthy addition to this part of the Hill: I expect it will get much Congress-related traffic, and maybe the Obamas will come to get their fill of those amazing fries. I wish it a good run and eagerly await my return (sans children) so I can sample the poutine and the escargot with another perfectly mixed French 75 (which was very much on point when I visited).
However, I found the prix-fixe concept expensive for what it is: there are at least two competitive bistros within a two-mile radius with more extensive menu choices and whose prices for certain items are more reasonable, depending on the time of day. Of course, half of dining out is the experience, and this is where Bearnaise shone over those other places of comparable cuisine: their mission, at least in these first days, is to pamper you. There is always waitstaff on hand ready to fill your water glass or bring more delicious frites right to your plate. They are happy to share their tastes and make sure you are as satisfied as possible with your meal: the kind and thoughtful attention was well appreciated by all of us, as much as the meal itself.
If you go: Try the steak. I thought the plain Béarnaise sauce was very tasty, although the poivre was just the right amount of spicy and well done. Their Croque Monsieurs (ham and cheese sandwiches) were gooey and served on excellent sourdough, without going overboard. The cheese was perfectly melted. The fries were delicious and crispy. The accompanying salad, while perfectly fine and fresh, was a bit on the skimpy side.
On my to do list: Try the Montréal-style Poutine– fries topped with gravy and cheese curdles. Sounds exotic like a Bingo night, but also delicious when done right! Also, frog legs– because, frog legs!
I look forward to trying Béarnaise for lunch as well, and see what additions –if any– they bring to the menu, but I may not go for the prix fixe again.
Have you tried it? Share your experiences in the comments!