Consistent Cuisine, No Gimmicks Keep La Bergerie Going Strong
Hidden on the second floor of the Crilley Warehouse office space in the heart of Old Town Alexandria, Va., is a little gem that many Alexandrians have come to know and love over the years, and lucky tourists have stumbled upon, but fewer in the D.C. region have discovered. La Bergerie opened more than 30 years ago at a time when the area was a veritable wasteland for superior dining options. Even today, with the large number of excellent establishments, La Bergerie continues to shine as perhaps the best that Alexandria has to offer and as one of the best French restaurants in the Washington area.
The décor at La Bergerie is elegant and the mood quiet and refined. Exposed-brick warehouse walls are punctuated with antique paintings of the French Pyrenees countryside and softly lit crystal chandeliers. The tables — topped with fresh-cut flowers and complemented by richly embroidered tapestry chairs with vaguely Egyptian motifs — are interspersed with large semi-circular booths, offering both open and intimate seating to suit whatever mood or occasion.
When owner Laurent Janowsky took over in 2000 from La Bergerie’s original owners, brothers Bernard and Jean Campagne-Ibarcq, he successfully maintained the restaurant’s commitment to offering superior regional French cuisine with no gimmicks. The dishes are classically French and Basque with modifications to suit the ever-expanding palate of ingredients and techniques available to creative chefs. And the award-winning wine list, built primarily with French and California wines, is varied and carefully selected to complement the cuisine rather than upstage it.
The menu offers choices that range from traditional dishes simply executed to complex creations that challenge the palate and are beautiful to behold. The French onion soup is a straightforward rendering, mellow and rich with dripping melted Gruyere cheese, while the delicately flavored lobster bisque, a lighter-than-usual version, is finished with a tiny island of satiny lobster flan and sprinkles of lobster roe.
From among the many excellent appetizers, the most fascinating is the Oeufs Brouillés. The prosaic description on the menu, “3 Soft Boiled Eggs,” does not begin to capture the dish. It arrives as three classic white egg cups arranged elegantly on a plate, with each egg filled by a piece of smoked salmon, a few bits of truffle, or a slice of wild boar prosciutto. The true delight of the dish comes as you discover that each delicately seasoned egg has been prepared very differently depending on its garnish, with softly scrambled, soufflé-like, and creamy preparations emerging as you scoop out each egg. As is the way with so much French cooking, this deceptively simple dish proves to be a complex interplay of texture, flavor and technique.
Presentation is emphasized as a key component in many of the dishes at La Bergerie. A large white plate is paved with almost tissue-thin, deep red, finely marbled beef carpaccio decorated with mache lettuce, white truffle oil and thin slices of well-aged Parmesan.
The classic Caesar salad, meanwhile, is built tableside in a sort of culinary floorshow. With practiced ease, the server rubs the bowl with garlic, breaks up the head of romaine lettuce, cracks the egg and separates the yolk, and tosses together the lettuce, fresh Reggiano cheese, anchovies and only enough dressings to wet the leaves — finishing it all off with a flourish of crunchy croutons. Likewise, a tableside preparation of Dover sole — a deliciously simple version with only butter, lemon and parsley — makes the art of de-boning fish look easy.
Indeed, several of the fish dishes are notable for both their creative construction and flavors. Pink salmon filets are formed into a roll encased by dark green leeks, sliced into thick rounds, and served with colorful baby vegetables and a single ravioli filled with mildly curried mussels. Mild fresh branzini filets are stacked, Napoleon-style, with layers of potato and a bold, salty anchovy and black olive sauce.
The embellishing touches that accompany several of the main courses add visual and taste appeal, and are particular marks of distinction of La Bergerie’s kitchen. Take, for instance, a tiny green cabbage roll stuffed with an eggy filling that rounds out the veal tenderloin with a chanterelle mushroom sauce, or the roasted venison chop, which is paired with a subtle and unexpected vanilla sauce and crème brûlée of foie gras.
In addition to these accompaniments, the menu offers several vegetable side dishes that can all be ordered separately or together as an entrée. Among these are the green asparagus with hollandaise sauce, lightly creamed baby spinach, fricassée of wild mushrooms flamed in cognac, ragout of fresh artichoke and truffle Yukon mashed potatoes. All are good but the mushroom fricassée is particularly delicious.
It is no surprise that desserts are equally appealing, though more limited than the rest of the menu. The highlight is the individual soufflés in raspberry, hazelnut, chocolate or Grand Marnier flavors. These light and airy confections served with their rich sauces are a delightful end to the meal. But be prepared to order them at the beginning of the meal — and be forewarned, they are filling. Another interesting choice is the layered hazelnut and caramel ice cream cake, which is not as cake-like as the name suggests. For those wanting to try several desserts, the trio of crème fraîche with macerated cherries, chocolate fondant, and Croquant à l’Orange will satisfy your sweet tooth in one order.
Service at La Bergerie is as meticulous as one might expect from the attention paid to the culinary aspects of the restaurant. No first names are exchanged, and there is no obtrusive presence asking how things are every few minutes. But as is the way of truly skilled wait staff, they seem able to anticipate your needs almost before you have them yourself.
In an era when so many restaurants are adopting a more casual bistro-based model, La Bergerie has resisted the trend and remains as it always has been, a haven, which is also the translation of the restaurant’s name. And in this sanctuary of culinary calm, diners will still find the quality and consistency that have been the restaurant’s hallmarks since it opened more than three decades ago.
La Bergerie in Old Town Alexandria on the second floor of Crilley Warehouse 218 N. Lee St. (703) 683-1007 www.labergerie.com
Lunch: Mon. – Sat. from 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.and for private parties on Sunday Dinner: Mon. – Thu. from 5:30 – 9:30 p.m.; Fri. – Sat. from 5:30 – 10:30 p.m.; Sun. from 5 – 9 p.m.
Appetizers: – Entrées: – Desserts: – Prix-fixe menus: for three courses (Sun. -Thu.)
Dress: Business casual
About the Author
Rachel Hunt is the dining reviewer for The Washington Diplomat