French food for the masses

French food for the masses

If Washington dining were a romantic comedy, French restaurants would be pompous suitors just waiting to be taken down a peg by our hero. Rich, glamorous, often stuffy to a fault — when Gallic cuisine is played too literally, it can make us long for a pratfall to break the mood.

Central Michel Richard finds its whimsy in classic American dishes like fried chicken. Bistrot du Coin gets its kicks in the friendly cacophony of its open dining room and almost Epcot-like ambience. This spring the Petworth neighborhood is playing host to a new alpha kitchen that seeks to bring mass appeal to French standards, the glowingly restored Chez Billy.

Since its April opening, Billy has already loosened its tie to great effect. The bar offers several happy-hour options, local residents can get a 15 percent discount on weeknights, and price points on some of chef Brendan L’Etoile’s polished plates are slightly lower. But the personality of the new kitchen from impresarios Eric and Ian Hilton, known for their U Street hits Marvin and The Gibson, is still hopping between nose-in-the-air conformity and quirky risk-taking.

However, just because Chez Billy has yet to undergo its Act Three transition to the A-list of D.C. French restaurants doesn’t mean that diners won’t enjoy watching it evolve. Hints of greatness are already palpable in L’Etoile’s merguez sausage, a tender coil of juicy grilled lamb whose smoke is balanced on creamy bites of braised beans and a nutty tangle of wilted greens.

Billy also nails one of the more difficult Francophilic favorites, delivering a duck confit that commingles the salty density of succulent dark meat with the sweet notes of a sauce made from wine-based Banyuls vinegar. Golden roasted potatoes and earthy oyster mushrooms nestled atop the duck’s charred skin complete the picture.

Dishes like the duck and sausage, along with a mustard-spiked moules mariniere that mercifully delivers as much mollusk as broth, are best shared among a group who can appreciate the often-intense flavors packed into each dish. A recent house-made paté appetizer, for one, was swathed in bacon and larger than most entrees, making it a challenge for any duo to deal with before ordering their main course, but perfect for a crowd.

A different breed of dilemma is fighting among fellow diners over second helpings of L’Etoile’s ethereal gnocchi. Almost indistinguishable in texture from the creamy sheep’s-milk cheese it is served with, the gnocchi, which comes in a mixture of vibrant green English peas, joins its crispy brethren at Graffiato as top of the city’s class.

Equally worth a squabble over are the salt cod fritters, undersized but impressively Italianized versions of a creamy French classic known as brandade that are dressed in a crisp batter and bright trails of preserved lemon sauce. The croquettes go down like the easy bar bites Parisians might pop over a glass of their quintessential quaff Kronenbourg 1664, which happens to be one of Billy’s six beers on draft.

It’s in less splashy dishes like those fritters and the merguez that the kitchen’s more down-to-earth charm begins to show through. Duck confit is a showstopper, but the less buttoned-up 20-somethings who call Petworth home are just as likely to pinch their pennies for a dinner of the French-Canadian cheese frites known as poutine. (If they pair those potatoes with L’Etoile’s beet salad, bearing tangy yogurt instead of the ubiquitous goat cheese, they may have beaten the duck in the flavor department, and for less money to boot.)

Indeed, for all the high-class hype that surrounded Chez Billy’s opening, its best chances for becoming a fixture lie not in the date-night allure of Marvin but in the easy, throwback sensibility of its restored bar area. 

Exposed brick hides pieces of the wooden beams that crossed the ceiling of the building’s previous incarnation, a steak-and-fish spot called Billy Simpson’s. Beams appear elsewhere in the bar, too, painted in a warm green and arranged in a way that creates several nooks that are perfect for chatting. The expansive upstairs includes an outdoor patio as well as a place for jazz sessions on weekend nights.

Beyond the thirst-quenching lagers, Chez Billy’s wine list provides a group of accessible grapes to cut the buttery heft of its best bites. The Nicolas pinot noir and San Andre rose are sophisticated, refreshing accompaniments, and the most expensive bottle of white wine is a location-appropriate $34.

The cocktail list is stocked with well-executed standards such as New Orleans-signature Sazerac, dosed with a spicy nose of absinthe, and a century-old concoction dubbed the Delicious Sour that froths egg white atop a vaguely sweet apple brandy base. A Kir Royale on the dry side of sweet makes a marriage of opposites as a dessert drink when paired with profiteroles or the rich chocolate pot-de-crème, served sweetly in a mason jar. 

But Chez Billy’s mixologists really get into a groove at brunch, when the Kristofferson drink throws an American curveball with strawberry liqueur and herbaceous bitters atop wheat beer, and the Cold Coffee Fizz gives egg whites a perfect mate: nutmeg-infused coffee, brandy and bourbon. 

These drinks are the perfect ways to start a lazy D.C. Sunday — a cavalcade of flavor and just enough of a punch to push you past a late night. Add a Croque Madame, the famous ham-and-Swiss melt crowned by a fried egg, and you’ll put the stereotype of snobby French restaurants to rest for good.