By Alexander Bolton - 02/25/10 12:39 AM EST
Bistro Cacao, a mix of Turkish exoticism and venerable French cuisine, has forged a signature style that distinguishes it among Washington’s bistros.
With red drapery, quaintly patterned wallpaper and antique lighting fixtures — not to mention the Toulouse-Lautrec art — it’s Paris at the end of the 19th century, and only a short jaunt from the Capitol.
The adjacent Green Room is less lush but no less distinctive. It’s reminiscent of a fin de siècle French parlor yet restrained enough for a business banquet.
The White Room, adorned with a rough-hewn wooden wine rack, which patrons first encounter when entering the restaurant, is the most spare of the three dining rooms.
A guest might be surprised to find a hip, quirky restaurant on Capitol Hill instead of, say, Adams Morgan or U Street. But judging from the buzz among diners, the locals seem relieved to have a culinary adventure they can walk to.
Bistro Cacao occupies the space that formerly housed Two Quail, a fixture of Capitol Hill’s dining scene for more than two decades. But whereas Two Quail, with its eclectic décor, was like an eccentric aunt, Bistro Cacao is more of a well-traveled uncle.
Kemal Deger, the chef and co-owner, is Turkish, as are his business partners, Harun and Yavuz Bolukbasi, who also run the contemporary Turkish restaurant and tango spot Mezè in Adams Morgan.
Deger trained under two French star chefs: Yannick Cam, a pioneer of nouvelle cuisine in Washington, and Jean-Louis Palladin, whom The New York Times once lauded for freeing French cuisine in the U.S. from “a hidebound orthodoxy.”
His kitchen’s talents shine most brightly through its meat dishes: duck, venison, lamb and steak.
The magret de canard, or seared duck breast, a staple of French bistro fare, is the best I can remember feasting on in a while.
Served with potato gratin, braised endives and raspberry wine sauce, the presentation was simple enough. But the meat itself causes one to sit up and take notice. The portion was generous, cooked to a perfect pink and succulent enough to leave a pool of savory juices on the plate.
The venison, which can be chewy even in the finest of restaurants, was melt-in-your-mouth tender and served with a potato cake and a poached pear, offering sweet balance to the meat’s earthy flavor.
The mustard- and herb-crusted rack of lamb was also delicious. The tender chops were accentuated by just a dash of seasoning that kept my mouth watering for another bite. The asparagus and roasted potatoes held up their end of the bargain just fine.
The bouillabaisse, chock-full of shrimp, mussels, calamari, clams and monkfish, caused one of my dinner companion’s eyes to bulge when she saw the size of the portion. The fish was tender and the shrimp perfectly cooked to burst in your mouth. The broth, however, was tame, lacking in concentrated flavor.
The one vegetarian entrée on the menu, a yellow bell pepper stuffed with saffron risotto, towered above the plate like a castle turret, sporting a sprig of rosemary for a flag. Another of my dining partners, a committed vegetarian, applauded the creative effort. She also liked the contrast struck between the silky pepper and the cheese-enhanced, though slightly dry, rice.
The wine list offers a selection from Burgundy, Bordeaux and Châteauneuf du Pape. The Château Magneau, Graves, showed good terroir for the price.
The appetizers all passed muster. The pheasant pâté was pleasantly rustic, if a little on the slim side. The sautéed snails were tender without a trace of grit, though perhaps not the best choice for a date, considering the liberal slathering of garlic butter and pureed parsley. The steamed mussels were plentiful, and the accompanying white wine broth so tasty that one person at my table declared she could “drink cups of it.” I had to agree.
Desserts joined the meat entrées as a highlight of the meal.
The kitchen takes pride in its flourless warm chocolate cake. It tasted like a soufflé, and I enjoyed it, but my dining companions thought it could have had a richer chocolate flavor.
The other specialty, a homemade pear tart with marzipan and vanilla ice cream, was an airy treat; the tart equivalent of thin-crust pizza.
The trio of crèmes brulée let the diner dance among chocolate, raspberry and vanilla flavors.
The poached pear with hot chocolate and whipped cream offered one of the most satisfying ways imaginable for meeting the daily recommended serving of fruit.
The restaurant also offers lunch, something lobbyists might want to consider when looking for a nice midday meal. It’s just a short walk from the Senate Hart Office Building, and among its lunch offerings is an onglet de boeuf. It’s a delicious grilled hanger steak matched with caramelized shallots, thin and crispy french fries and Dijon mustard.
Bistro Cacao will surely become a more attractive destination in the spring, when it opens an outdoor patio. But it also stands as one of the few French restaurants left on Capitol Hill, after both La Colline and La Brasserie closed. So far it has proven itself a worthy representation of one of the most classical of international cuisines.