Review: French in Fairfax

Between fine dining and neighborhood joint, Le Mediterranean Bistro offers the comforts of French food.

Between fine dining and neighborhood joint, Le Mediterranean Bistro offers the comforts of French food.

Driss Zahidi turns 40 in five months. “Eh, another day of life,” he says of his pending big birthday. “As long as the health is there, we’re good.”

Zahidi—after years cooking under the rule of others—is the sole owner of his restaurant. “It was my dream to open a restaurant by myself,” he says in the next breath.

Photo by Kyle Martell

In his piece of Fairfax, the Moroccan-born chef lets duck confit cuddle into clove-marinated white beans for a dish that is both elegant and homey, and an absolute steal: $14 for three courses. The soup special that day, a potato and leek creamery, lets the oniony green pop through with bits of herby oil seeping into its density. 

Le Mediterranean Bistro is a bit of a rectangle with mustardy brown walls. It refuses to play into American visions of a Parisian restaurant, which Bistro Vivant in McLean, Zahidi’s previous kitchen of employment, structured itself. Non-descript art hangs from the walls, but it is merely decoration, not a statement of identity. A nod of France appears on a huge blackboard with chalk announcing the plats du jour. Otherwise, it feels like the suburbs of America. That is what makes this place such a benefit to Fairfax City. It is French food that fits here. No gimmicks. No pretension. Solid food in your neighborhood. And neighbors are noticing.

On one Tuesday night this summer, the kitchen ran out of three dishes by 7:30. Zahidi orders ingredients conservatively for his new venture, which opened in mid-April. This is why his lunch specials exist. It brings customers; Volume, not high prices, is what Zahidi hopes will keep his restaurant going. And when neighbors see a full restaurant they pop in. Multiple times couples walked into the restaurant and requested future reservations.

Maybe through the window they noticed a crepe, tinged green and bulked up like a stuffed omelet at a Jersey diner, but instead filled with nuggets of sweet crab, garnished with more crab and microgreens. The crepe sits in a ring of firey orange oil, the hue alerting of heat.

A similar shade, this time of butter, white wine and cayenne, endear my dining companions to a bowl of shrimp. Combined with garlic and herbs, it forms not only a glorious bath for the crevettes but a pit stop for bread. Zahidi wavered between suppliers for this quintessential French ingredient, and after some disappointments, partnered with with local bread maker Panorama for a crusty rendition with a doughy, layered interior.

The house-cut beef tartare, an abundant portion of meat, silky with egg and pungent with mustard, could easily make use of the house bread. Additional sauces dot the plate, with chive oil contributing another layer of indulgence that proves our carnal tongues can devour fat upon fat upon fat.

New York strip is standard fare, with odd-shaped fries that do not lend themselves to even cooking and can therefore be either under- or over-cooked. A wild rockfish lands on the blander side, but is utterly fresh, just not sufficiently seasoned.

A better bet from the sea is a bronzino, served whole. Vegetables, sometimes ignored in the grand traditions of this historical food culture (although, not anymore says “The French Market Cookbook” by 33-year-old-Parisian Clotilde Dusoulier) create a rainbow on the plate: marigold and deep purple carrots, cooked only half-way with almost so much snap a butter knife cannot cut it, just-wilted green beans, softened yellow squash and halved cherry tomatoes. The fish is salty and lemony and plenty charred for that pleasing bitterness. A gravy boat of lemon butter accompanies the dish, as does the urge to pour it all over the plate, as if it was Aunt Jemimah heading toward your dad’s Saturday pancakes. But do show restraint, like Zahidi. This is French in the suburbs. No need to get wild. – Stefanie Gans