It’s easy to find the charm in this French neighborhood restaurant.
Let’s address this first: There’s no particular hook, no newsy element, no answer to the “Why now?” question in this review of La Fromagerie.
Most restaurants receive reviews in the first six months of opening. Other reasons for reviews are a chef change, an ownership change, a list-based story or inclusion in a roundup.
But sometimes a critic must live like a normal eater and go to a restaurant just because. Because it’s close. Because the menu looks interesting. Because you heard good things. Because it feels right for that night.
After arriving exactly one minute before the kitchen stopped taking orders, I sat down in an almost-empty space. One wall is lined with wines, another with banquettes, another with windows facing Alexandria’s King Street, which was fairly deserted on this particular night.
Sebastien Tavel, the chef and owner of La Fromagerie who took it from a wine and cheese shop opened in 2009 to what he calls a “wine bar with a French accent” two years later, orders most of his produce from Path Valley Farms in Pennsylvania. “Some is cool, some not so cool,” he says. “Once in a while I buy stuff and I don’t even know what it means.” He laughs at this. It’s a lack of seriousness that is so dearly needed in a food world full of pretension.
A salad of wild dandelions exhibits this point. The salad is French in many ways—Tavel is a native of the Lyon region—but also hints at how the foraging frenzy seduces diners into eating a bowl of weeds for $14. Tavel fries bacon and shallots together, throws a few baked croutons in the pan then pours the heated dressing over the greens. There’s also a soft-boiled egg, naturally. The greens are bitter and unruly, tamed under the vinaigrette. The croutons, though, are what I’m drawn to. They are not crunchy for the most part. “I try not to cook them until hard,” Tavel says, because they’re “not very pleasant to chew.” He’s right, of course, and I think about how I never really liked croutons until this salad, where they retain a little give but are dry enough to soak up the molten yolk and bacon drippings.
The tiniest sea scallops rest atop a deeply buttery squid ink risotto. Chorizo, ground to resemble bacon bits, keeps the textures from being too synonymous. Confit leg of lamb, sous vide actually, where the lamb is packed into a vacuum-sealed bag with duck fat and submerged in water at 135 degrees for seven hours, is a sumptuous cut, turning the meat into something that tastes like part steak, part braise, though a heavier sear after the bath would have been a nice touch.
As kitchens become less dependent on Sysco and more vested in scratch cooking, the explanations have also grown. Housemade isn’t even in the dictionary yet—and it’s probably the most universally used description on a menu. Servers also routinely deliver rehearsed soliloquies on exactly how each ingredient was prepped for each dish.
Unless you asked, you wouldn’t know that not only is the pappardelle made fresh here, but that Tavel also grinds wheat berries into flour, plus adds a dash of porcini powder, for the pasta. “I read this somewhere, I forget, but milling your own flour is the new thing for chefs,” Tavel says. He’s 47. He’s been cooking for decades. But he’s still reading about trends. He bought Mastering Pasta by the Philadelphia restaurateur and chef Marc Vetri.
“I don’t like to brag about stuff” is his answer to why this fact of the dish isn’t communicated unless asked. I happened to ask my server, who then, reading the table, went into the dish’s intricacies like its variety of mushrooms and house-pickled paprika.
The dish is lovely, and the noodles are fascinating, at times both brittle and tender for a texture that is interesting. The noodles aren’t just a vehicle for that reduced cream infused with paprika but are an integral part in their own right.
The bottles here are mostly French and also unusual. There are a few biodynamic wines, like the almost fizzy, definitely funky Domaine Pilemon Jurançon Noir. Only a few desserts are available each day, but there’s usually a dark chocolate pot de creme: better than mousse, better than pudding, dotted with chopped pecans and a whisper of powdered sugar. It’s simple and striking, like most everything else here. It’s just right for tonight.
1222 King St., Alexandria
Open Wednesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner
Appetizers: $4-$18; Entrees: $22-$24