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It’s a Tuesday evening in December, that black hole of a night when restaurateurs will offer just about anything this side of a lap dance to suck you out of your warm homes and into their (mostly) empty dining rooms. I confidentially told my dining companion that I’d meet her at Et Voila! in the Palisades, sans reservations, at 7:30 p.m. Boy, was that stupid.
The host politely asked me if I had a reservation, and when I told him no, he began to scan his book. Finally, he looked up and said, quite sheepishly, that I’d have to wait 20 minutes for a seat.
So I claimed a spot at the microscopic, four-seat bar and read the paper while waiting on my friend. It made for an odd juxtaposition: In the paper, the nation’s pointiest heads were telling me that the U.S economy has been in a recession for a year. In the dining room, there wasn’t a seat to be had, as if the real-estate bubble was still gathering air.
Maybe the 2009 prognostications for the restaurant biz are correct, I thought. Maybe intimate bistros like this are on the rise, mid-range refuges where we can forget about, at least until the beer wears off, all the money we’ve lost and lose ourselves instead in a steaming pot of mussels and a side of crisp, double-cooked fries. Who would have guessed five years ago, in the era of freedom fries, that we’d find comfort in anything that smacks of the French?
Et Voila!, like Belgium itself, is only half-French. The bistro reflects the passions of its owners, the two-toque partnership of Claudio Pirollo (savory) and Mickael Cornu (pastry). Pirollo is a native Belgian born to Italian parents; his dad ran a shop back in Brussels that imported Italian meats, sausages, cheeses, and olive oils. Pirollo has worked the stoves on both sides of the Atlantic, from Switzerland and Belgium to the United States, where he spent nearly two years at Montmartre on Capitol Hill and almost five serving as the personal chef to the Irish ambassador.
Pirollo met Cornu, a Frenchman, at the Belgian Embassy where they watched the Euro 2000 final between Italy and France—a nail-biter in which France, the heavy favorite, won 2–1 in extra time. Pirollo, an Italian soccer loyalist, didn’t go hooligan on Cornu following the loss; their friendship obviously transcends simple nationalism.
Their first restaurant together can’t be larger than the average men’s room at a soccer stadium. To dine at Et Voila!, you must enjoy tactile contact with strangers. Unless you are fortunate enough to be seated against the orange banquette along one wall, you will bump into waiters, runners, fellow diners, maybe even your own evil id for repeated violations of your personal space.
The owners have done virtually all they can to make you forget you’re eating inside a shoebox. The walls are painted a calming yellow, and framed hanging mirrors help create the impression that the room is larger than it is. The wait staff, almost all male, are unfailingly gracious and polite. They practically say “excuse me” before you plow into them on the way to the toilet.
Part of Et Voila!’s appeal actually lies in its cramped immediacy, as if the joint has siphoned the energy of an arena-rock concert, minus the idolatry, inane stage patter, and recreational drug use. Besides, no one right now wants a semi-empty restaurant to remind them of how crappy the economy is.
Pirollo’s menu, by contrast, is cool only if you consider the current fascination with moules frites cool, which I don’t. Marvin may serve the pair in a hip environment, Brasserie Beck and Dr. Granville Moore’s, too, but in the end, the dish is just a bowl of mussels and a side of fries. These mollusks and spuds are relatively inexpensive ingredients (a 10-pound bag of Prince Edward Island mussels can be had wholesale for under $20) tarted up with designer broths and dipping sauces. (Take note: Et Voila! serves no dipping sauces with its ultra-crispy fries, which sometimes could use a flavor kick.)
I’m not trying to be difficult here by judging a dish solely on its economic value. I enjoy moules frites, but they’re surprisingly easy to screw up. My recent bowl of mussels in garlic-cream sauce at Et Voila! was a good example. I felt like I was playing a game of Go Fish every time I stuck my fork into the pot, never knowing what I’d draw: One nubbin of meat was rubbery, another (and another and another) was gritty, but a third would be just right, a delicate hit of the sea ferrying the perfect amount of garlic and cream and the slightest hint of white wine. Even worse: One specimen had not opened its shell at all and should never have reached my spot in the dining room.
I chalked this pot of mussels up to a kitchen slammed under the weight of a packed dining room, which tells you something, I guess, about the restaurant’s ability to handle its increasing popularity. The pot was also, by and large, the lone disappointment I encountered during three visits to Et Voila!
Sure, my medium-rare rib-eye suffered an indignity or two from an inattentive cook, mostly a charred and somewhat chewy cap section, but it was nothing that the thick round of maitre d’ butter couldn’t fix. And, yes, the chicken waterzooi, a bowl of poached bird swimming in a velvety velouté with julienne veggies, reminded me too much of a home-cooked holiday meal, but is that such a bad thing in a bistro?
My favorite plates came in surprising places: a seemingly leaden appetizer of ham-wrapped Belgian endive, whose leafy bitterness poked nicely through a dense layer of baked béchamel sauce, as well as several items on the weekend brunch menu, which is typically the bane of chefs everywhere. Pirollo’s buttery quiche, at once flaky and dense with caramelized leeks, should be held up in cooking schools as the pinnacle of this unfairly maligned dish. His thick, crunchy croque madame, whose fatty pleasures dripped from all sides, including the top with its fried egg, was arguably even better. Even Cornu’s innocent-as-pie apple tart provided an unexpected goosing from its scoop of vanilla-honey ice cream infused with the distinct herb-and-citrus flavors of Hoegaarden beer. It made for a brilliant pairing.
Speaking of which, Et Voila! boasts a small but well-selected Belgian beer list, a good match for almost anything here—except for brunch fare. Or so I thought until I experimented with a Lindemans lambic kriek, which I paired with my eggs Benedict with smoked salmon. The beer’s sourness acted like a welcome hit of acid to the overly rich dish, while its sweet fruit flavors served as sort of a morning glass of juice. It was beer for breakfast. That’s what I call a recipe for the recession blues.
Et Voila!, 5120 MacArthur Blvd. NW, (202) 237-2300.
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