Voilà! is a new French bistro whose name exclaims its presence with punctuation familiar to fans of Typhoon! and Cucina! Cucina! After eating my way through the menu, I have high hopes for this little Madison Valley venue: one that has become my personal equivalent of a scene straight out of "Groundhog Day."
I've walked through these heavy wooden doors many times during the past four years, always stopping to admire the compact bar whose storefront window offers a cozy counter with a street-side view. Time and again I've taken a seat at one of fewer than a dozen tables to eat and drink before favorably reviewing each of the restaurants that have shared this address.
First there was Jimmy's Table, which didn't live to see its second birthday before — voilà! — it closed and reopened under new ownership as Gypsy. Gypsy lived for less than a year before — voilà! — it, too, closed, reopening as Gitano, which — voilà! — closed in January before debuting in March as Voilà!
Chef Laurent Gabrel owned Figaro Bistro for five years before a buyout offer led him to shutter his Lower Queen Anne restaurant. He took up residence here soon after, painting the walls Dijon-yellow and hanging them with a grand mirror and oversized French posters. The name came easily enough. "Voilà!" says Gabrel, "is the only French word you don't have to speak French to remember."
Pronouncing it is another story. So says the woman at the next table on a recent weeknight. She and her husband were ooh-la-la-ing over the evening's special — mustard- and honey-swabbed sweetbreads with champagne-poached pears ($16) — when she asked her waiter to pronounce the restaurant's name. "We keep calling it Viola!" she admitted with a merry laugh.
Later we traded dining tips. (They suggested I have the sweetbreads; I insisted they order the exquisite crème brûlée, $7). I learned the couple lived nearby, have eaten here in all its incarnations and like this one best. Why? "They serve the kind of food we like," the woman said. Meaning? Familiar foods, simply prepared: a meal that needs no translation.
Nevertheless, translation is provided. The short menu is written in French with English descriptions: insight for those ordering "filet de saumon au gros sel" ($14) or "endives gratinées au jambon" ($10). The former is salmon pan-seared over rock salt; the latter is an elegant gratin of Belgian endives, steamed and blanketed with French ham, then swaddled in béchamel and baked with a touch of Gruyère.
"Les Entrées" ($10-$14) arrive à la carte. "Les side dish" ($4-$6) are available for those who can't imagine eating their steak (thick-sliced onglet, $13) or moules (mussels in a light cream, strongly, strangely and wonderfully flavored with blue cheese, $12), without frites ($4). And who could eschew those slender batons, hot from the deep-fryer and sprinkled with a fine mixture of garlic and parsley?
As at any French bistro worth its sel, no one will look askance if all you're after is a slice of pâté de campagne au poivre ($6) and a carafe of vin rouge ($9). Or a salade maison ($5) and a selection of cheeses (Morbier, bleu de Bresse and tomme de Savoie when I sampled it, $10). One night, a sole diner — book in one hand, glass in the other — spread rich, roughly textured country pâté on slices of rustic baguette. The pâté, embellished with coarse peppercorns, is served with cornichons but not, as is customary, with mustard (you won't need it).
Another evening, a pair of teens, dressed to chill in fashionably form-fitting sweats and looking rather uncomfortable nonetheless, took their waiter's advice as he helped them navigate the unfamiliar menu. Their eyes widened as they tasted (for the first time?) their coq au vin. I, too, have enjoyed that hearty dish — two bronzed chicken hindquarters braised in a wine sauce hinting of smoky bacon and bolstered with crimini mushrooms ($12). Like another homey French classic, boeuf Bourguignon ($11), it came steaming to the table fragrant with spices, heavy with red wine and well suited to a cool rainy evening.
As the weather warms (and when Thursday-through-Saturday lunch service begins, next week), I'd be inclined to turn to the Merguez grille frites ($10) — two lean, juicy and mildly spicy breakfast-sausage-sized lamb links poised atop a heap of fries. Dip the fries into the heat-stoked mayo alongside and you'll be hooked.
I also highly recommend tagliatelle aux champignons des bois ($11). Though the "wild mushrooms" were decidedly tame, this pasta — ricocheting with cracked pepper, lemon juice, shiitakes and oyster mushrooms — was as appealing as it was refreshing.
Though Gabrel is the man behind the menu, he can often be found in the dining room, leaving the kitchen to his crew as he does that French-bistro thing, greeting customers, pouring wine or pulling up a seat to chat with friends.
His serving staff is young and earnest, though not always as familiar as they might be with the menu or wine list. I'm not inclined to hold that against them, as this is, after all, a casual neighborhood bistro: one that — cross my fingers — will hopefully succeed where others have not.
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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