French Evolution

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Like Its Namesake, Bastille Succeeds In Bringing Change, Innovation

Tucked away in a remote corner of Old Town Alexandria, Va., hard against the railroad tracks, Bastille recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. Housed in part of a renovated warehouse that has been charmingly transformed into a casual bistro with an almost country inn appearance and an enticing outdoor patio, the restaurant bears no resemblance to the notorious Parisian structure, the storming of which set off the French Revolution. But like its namesake, this Bastille is about change and evolution.

Chefs Christophe Poteaux and Michelle Garbee have been on the leading edge of a trend to shift away from the high-end destination dining model, creating an atmosphere that is welcoming and casual—and a menu that is as accessible to the casual diner as it is to the foodophile. Working within a cuisine they classify as modern French and new Parisian, they blend classical French cooking techniques with ingredients from around the world, with a particular emphasis on the Mediterranean region.

The menu opens with a daily soup that has been outstanding. On a recent night, the cream of mushroom and parsnip was rich with a slightly bitter edge. Various salads offer diners interesting combinations, such as spinach, pear and walnut, or field green and baby beet—but one in particular stands out. The goat cheese cromesqui, baby arugula and figs with a shallot dressing is superb. The cromesqui, a small crisp-fried croquette-like concoction, crunches and gushes with warm melted cheese when you cut it and is near perfection when paired with the sour-sweet marinated figs and peppery arugula.

Poteaux and Garbee joined forces after a stint at Aquarelle, where they first began experimenting with the fusion of savory and sweet, which results in some of the most intriguing dishes on the menu. Both chefs began their culinary careers working with pastry and have incorporated techniques more typically associated with the dessert side of the menu to create appetizers such as a goat cheesecake with fig-banyuls compote or wine-poached pear and candied pistachios that are deliciously paired with pan-seared fois gras. Also served as an appetizer, savory beignets are filled with calamari and shrimp and accompanied by a sauce of sheep milk yogurt and harissa dip (a North African hot chili paste).

In evolving from classical French cooking, Poteaux has largely eliminated rich cream and butter-based sauces for the meats, replacing them with interesting vegetable accompaniments. Grilled branzino, for example, is accompanied by an oven-roasted tomato compote and wild mushrooms. Halibut, meanwhile, arrives with an aromatic tarragon-scented mushroom ragout, and the salmon is paired with green lentils and mustard-pancetta vinaigrette.

The kitchen also avoids overly complicated sauces and preparations, relying more on the flavors of a few well-chosen ingredients for effect. Bastille’s roasted chicken—prepared with prunes, lardoons, cipoline onions, mushrooms, cognac and fois gras sauce—is robust and satisfying. On a recent evening, diners could choose from two lamb dishes: a braised shank with fig-rosemary sauce and wild mushrooms, or small spicy chops done with harissa and a ragout of beans and red pepper. Both were equally good, and it was an interesting demonstration of the chef’s ability to create different effects by altering just a few elements of a dish.

Poteaux gives even a simple steak and potato dish a new dimension. Tender grass-fed beef filet medallions are served with porcini mushrooms, truffle sauce and a surprising Manchego cheese potato cake, which, though slightly dry, is still worth trying.

Although the main preparations are fairly light, the sides are not given the same treatment. The risotto and polenta are rich and delicious, while the Aligot mashed potatoes, a traditional dish from the Auvergne region in France, seem to be made mostly of butter, cream and cheese—with an afterthought of potato.

Like many of their contemporaries, chefs Poteaux and Garbee stress the importance of buying locally and seasonally and prefer to work with organic produce, sustainably raised or harvested, as well as free-range or farm-raised meats.

The menu features a number of interesting domestic artisanal cheeses, but in a nod to the Mediterranean influence, Bastille’s risottos are prepared from carnaroli, a white rice grown in the Piedmont and Lombardy regions of Italy that is regarded by many as the finest of Italian rices.

And although she brings her creative talents to the main menu, Garbee does not forget that dessert is something different—and special. Like much of the menu, Garbee’s dessert preparations are fairly simple and straightforward, relying on well-defined, complementary and contrasting flavors and textures. She accents a rich squash cheesecake, for example, with a maple-pecan streusel for a classic fall flavor. The pot de crème incorporates both coffee and intense Valrhona Manjari chocolate into a super-smooth baked custard-like dish that packs a powerful punch for chocolate lovers. A walnut cake is well complemented with crunchy fresh caramelized figs and rich Armagnac crème anglaise. And the gritty texture of the cooked pear contrasts with the smooth crème fraiche in a warm tatin.

Bastille has opted to limit its beverage list to wine and beer—a suitable choice given the wine-bar feel of the place, with its high ceilings, numerous windows, interestingly coarse-grained rustic wood floor and very open seating plan. Poteaux and Garbee have put together an interesting wine list comprising varieties from lesser-known regions of the Old and New World, choosing wines that stand up to the food but that are also affordable, with many available in both full and half pours.

In addition, the menu offers several delicate wine- and champagne-based cocktails, including a few interesting choices. The Provencal spritzer is flowery, with Wolfberger Cremant D’Alsace rose and lavender syrup, while a dirty Bellini of prosecco and Madagascar vanilla bean-infused simple syrup is earthier. For fruit lovers, the Pomegranate Fizz with pomegranate juice, Blanc du Blanc and a twist of lemon is an easy swallow.

And it’s also easy to see why, after a year in business, Bastille has established itself as a favorite spot among many Alexandrians and a recommended alternative to the well-worn path of typical Old Town destinations.

Bastille 1201 N. Royal Street, Alexandria, Va. (703) 519-3776 www.bastillerestaurant.com

Lunch: Mon. to Fri. 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m.; Sat. 12 - 2:30 p.m. Brunch: Sun. 11:30 a.m. - 3 p.m. Dinner: Mon. to Thu. 6 - 9:30 p.m.; Fri. & Sat. 6 - 10 p.m.; Sun. 4 - 8 p.m. Prices: Small plates: - ; Main courses: - ; Desserts: Pre-fixe menus: Early week: Mon. to Wed. ; Pre-theater: ; Chef’s tasting: Dress: Business casual Reservations: Accepted and recommended

About the Author

Rachel Hunt and Stephen Qualiana are the restaurant reviewers for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999