Expect Parisian prices, as well as some of its charm, at McLean’s new, casual bistro.
Words by Stefanie Gans / Photos by Kate Bohler
The woven seating will fly your heart back to Paris. The rattan chair with the understated tan and dark green pattern—classic in the slight curving back—is simple in its casual, chic design.
You will remember the bistro seating from a trip to the City of Lights, where the French arrange chairs theater-style, facing sidewalks, as to not miss views of women with tattered hair and gypsy clothing, and men in horizontal navy and white striped shirts (the cliché is true) portray a gritty personae, unable to mask their authentic, Franco-beauty.
But, theater-style isn’t necessary in McLean; The view isn’t the same.
Bistro Vivant’s chairs face a parade of Mercedes and Lexus trophies in the strip mall parking lot on Chain Bridge Road. But crusty bread, from local carbohydrate star Panorama Baking, sits atop the bare, wooden table. Better yet, the golden-hued butter from the Amish, blended with sea salt and served at the peak of spreadability. Spend your calories here, the rest of the menu is not always as worthy.
But do order a foursome of shrimp—pricey for eight dollars. Pink and plump, the shellfish nestle in a pungent garlicky oil, thick with herbs and red pepper flakes. A chilled tomato soup displays no airs, with a glass bowl mirroring this ideal.
Delicate scallops miss the chance to perform when paired with Kayne West-shouts from the acidic cherry tomatoes and salty olives. Goat cheese stuffed croquettes (shaped as logs) leave the fryer dried out. Steak tartare tastes more like my dad’s salad dressing in the late ‘80s—soggy from Russian dressing. Trained in hotel management in Switzerland, Aykan Demiroglu, part owner with Domenico Cornacchia of nearby Assaggi Osteria, snickers at the suggestion of bottled chemicals swallowing the cubed, rare beef. He ticks off a who’s who in the French kitchen: capers, cornichons, shallots, anchovies… that whiz together, with ketchup, to become an overbearing shield from what should be an ode to pure meat.
The details are there. The fifteen dollar tartare sits next to a pyramid of expertly dressed greens. The tumblers are of the French Duralex variety, brought in especially by Demiroglu, although many of the Parisian touches are remnants from the space’s previous tenant, the short-lived McLean 1910. The upscale-casual American restaurant’s fate is mimicked widely in this part of Northern Virginia, most recently with the departure of Michele by Michele Richard in the Tysons Corner Ritz-Carlton.
Reworking the space, Demiroglu installed Italian granite in the bar area, replacing the stainless steel workstation, which he compared to a Cheesecake Factory aesthetic. A mirror behind the bar opens up the restaurant and the gold trimmings reinforce the Franco feel. Honoring his weekly trips to Washington D.C.’s Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market, Demiroglu installed a wall-defining blackboard that colorfully presents new, seasonal specials each day. Mondays obey the growing trend to keep the beginning of the workweek meatless. One visit showed off delicately fried zucchini blossoms. The Van Gogh-like golden orange-hued flowers turn into a crackly shell revealing a tangy goat cheese stuffed inside. The blossoms sit on a bed of burst tomatoes, their juices flowing to the outer curves of the deep, white plate. No protein, grain or starch lives here, which would have bestowed this dish its veg-friendly bona fides.
The char has been supported by a rotating cast depending on the night, and while the pink flesh mimics the beauty of a watermelon next to mushy peas, the boring British side is best left in the United Kingdom.
Fries, of course, will always win awards. The crisp and light potato sticks find a friend in the nuanced Café de Paris sauce. Thirty-two ingredients—anchovies, capers, mustard, herbs—create a Technicolor sauce of swirling bright yellows and greens that, at times, can taste creamy, herby, acidic, rich and indefinable.
The sauce covers pre-sliced steak, revealing its red, grainy core. Pleasantly chewy, this cut of meat surely needs a slather of sauce. If you run out, or even if you don’t, ask for Maille, the noted French-imported spicy mustard. It will arrive in a sunflower colored jar so oversized Pooh would gladly snag it to fill with honey.
The prices can run high for what should be a weeknight date spot; a standard G&T costs $11. But if the parking lot expenses reflect wallet size, Bistro Vivant might manage to pull off uneven cooking in an area known both for its money, but also, its ability to shutter restaurants.
Farmers Market French Bistro
Carb load on the rolls and softened,
gold-colored, sea-salt-flecked Amish butter.
Small plates, appetizers: $5-$15;
Daily for lunch and dinner;
Saturday and Sunday brunch.
1394 Chain Bridge Road, McLean; 703-356-1700; bistrovivant.com.