There is one question I get asked more than any other. Where should I go for a special occasion meal in Bethesda? I have a tough time coming up with a response to this, because there are lots of pretty good places to eat in Bethesda, but special occasion/destination worthy? Not so much.
So when my husband and I join two other couples for dinner at Bistro Provence, I am holding out hope that Chef Yannick Cam can provide a possible answer to the Bethesda question. If anyone can, it’s Cam.
Chef Cam was a celebrity chef in DC before there really was such a thing. He was Executive Chef at a number of critically acclaimed high-end French restaurants in DC, including Le Pavillon and Le Paradou. I have not always been the biggest fan of French food, but it’s been growing on me lately. So, I’m happy to give the two-year old Bistro Provence a try. One couple has dined here recently, and look forward to returning. It’s a good sign.
It’s February when we decide to make a reservation for May, to take advantage of the beautiful garden setting. Unfortunately, we would have been better off in February. Our May outing turns out to be on a particularly cold and dreary evening. We are seated in the upstairs dining room, which appears to have once been someone’s living quarters. At least that’s the only explanation I can come up with for the presence of a washing machine on the side of the dining room. Despite this, it’s a lovely room, although the noise level is extremely high. We are at a round table, which usually facilitates conversation. I’m having trouble hearing the people across from me.
I’m adjusting to the sound level and perusing the menu. I’m surprised at the prices. Most of the appetizers start at $14 and go up from there. I rule out an interesting sounding foie gras at $24.50. There are still plenty of appealing choices, but I’m in one of those modes when I can’t make up my mind. We’re also struggling to pick a somewhat moderately priced bottle of wine. The waiter is French and serious, and someone who I can imagine has worked with Chef Cam for many years. He appears to be growing somewhat impatient with our indecision.
I realize this is starting to sound like I’m talking about a meal that doesn’t end well. I was thinking the same thing at this point of the evening. Then my food starts to arrive.
My first course is risotto with tomato confit, saffron, and roasted shrimp. It’s a generous portion, which I easily could have split with someone else. The shrimp are cooked just right, and the risotto benefits from the saffron which is distinguishable but not overpowering. It’s a bit rich, and I can’t finish the dish. But it’s a satisfying starter that turns my uncertainly at the start of the meal into an eagerness for what’s ahead.
I’m hearing positive comments from my fellow diners. My husband enjoys arugula salad with salt packed anchovies and parmesan reggianno. It’s simple, but these ingredients don’t need much enhancement to make them taste good.
My main course is a game changer. I ask for the server to direct me to something on the high end of the flavor scale. He he has one word for me….bouillabaisse. (Its even more appealing when pronounced with a French accent.) Server knows what he is talking about. It’s chock full of sea scallops, shrimp, and sea bass. The seafood is plentiful and perfectly cooked. But it is the broth that distinguishes this dish with notes of pernod and fennel. Each dip of the spoon brings forth something just a little bit different than the taste that comes before it. It’s one of those dishes that you can still taste hours later. The memory makes me want to immediately head back to Bistro Provence for more.
One of my friends tastes the bouillabaisse and can’t get over it. Throughout the rest of the evening he alternates between saying “I should have ordered the bouillabaisse” to “I have to go back for the bouillabaisse.” It feels good to be the person with the most coveted dish at the table.
My husband isn’t quite as effusive about the grilled salmon with ratatouille and basil. He enjoys the fish and vegetables, but the salmon is a tad dry.
We opt out of dessert, which doesn’t please the server. It’s not that the options have no appeal, but we’re planning to change venues. The way I look at it, it gives me some unknown territory to explore, because I know I’m having bouillabaisse on a return visit.
Just this morning a colleague asks “where should I go for an anniversary dinner? I don’t really want to go downtown.” I hesitate because I’ve gotten used to doing so when asked this question. Then I remember. I have an answer. Bistro Provence and the terrifically special bouillabaisse.
Washingtonian‘s 100 Very Best Restaurants 2012, 2 1/2 stars out of 4
The Washington Post review