Bernard Grenier declines to ask for sympathy. Really, he insists, he’s doing just fine. And if it sometimes appears that forces are conspiring against him and his restaurant, Bistro d’Oc, he doesn’t care to dwell on his misfortunes.
Allow me, then, to do the dwelling for him.
Weeks before Grenier opened the restaurant, in March 2003—he’d left Bethesda’s venerable La Miche after 24 years to return to the casual, intimate cooking he’d grown up on in Languedoc—construction began on a massive high-rise across the street, on the corner plot adjacent to Ford’s Theatre. Grenier thought of delaying the restaurant’s debut, but, being so close to launch, he couldn’t afford not to go ahead. Five months later, the D.C. government closed the street. If you missed the restaurant’s sign affixed on the construction fence, you likely missed the restaurant altogether. The new business’s customers were reduced to word-of-mouth and foot traffic, which was minuscule. And, says Grenier, the place was robbed four times in its first seven months.
Grenier was eking out a living that first year when the city increased his real-estate taxes, claiming that the value of the building that housed the bistro had doubled. Problem was, he found out about it five months later. And so, last summer, he was hit with a fine for back taxes.
Meanwhile, a backlash against all things French was making his dream of a cozy, accessible French bistro seem suddenly overambitious. Just the other day, a customer told him, “I love your food, but I will not drink your French wines.”
“And that,” says Grenier with a grim laugh, “was a nice person.”
That Bistro d’Oc has managed to survive these travails is surprising enough. That it has managed to do so while retaining its charm and its good cheer is almost cause for incredulity. Grenier’s restaurant may have its faults, but standoffishness and hauteur, those oft-lamented byproducts of Gallic cuisine, are not among them.
In a neighborhood that grows more corporate by the hour, Bistro d’Oc is mom-and-pop—and proudly so. Grenier’s wife handles the books. His eldest son is the maître d’. His youngest son waits tables on weekends. I won’t go so far as to say that eating at Bistro d’Oc is like eating in someone’s home, but you’d be hard put to find a self-respecting French restaurant more inviting.
Walking through the door on a drizzly autumn night, you’d think the place had been around forever. The wooden bar and the unvarnished wooden floors have a lived-in look that feels reassuring and familiar, and, at night especially, the vermilion walls give off a hearthlike glow.
Grenier’s cooking follows suit, with dishes that are short on finery and long on the kind of warmth and simplicity I find myself pining for as the days grow briefer and colder. Onion soup. Beef brisket with sausage and sauerkraut. Profiteroles.
Most of the appetizers are of the table-sharing variety, and almost all of them are reliable: There’s a smooth, tongue-coating foie-gras mousse, a wonderful smoked filet of peppered mackerel (served with chopped egg and toast points), a charcuterie plate, and a dish of snails drenched in sweet, frothing garlic butter. I’d pass, though, on the baked brie, a characterless version of the cheese that hardly benefits from being paired with a too-sweet apple compote. Ditto the hot avocado stuffed with crab-meat gratiné, an unfortunate mingling of temperatures.
The must-order among the starters is the sautéed calf’s brain with capers, a dish that, if the wait staff is to be believed, rarely exits the kitchen. Too bad. Such soft texture and heart-racing richness, and for less than you’d expect to pay for a fast-food meal.
The cassoulet is the dish most likely to leave you backing away from the table in surrender. All the component parts (duck, pork, sausage, lamb, white beans) are cooked together in the crock, so the earthy flavors have time to acquaint themselves and resolve their differences happily. The duck confit, though it tends toward greasiness, is soft and succulent. The hanger steak, a ropy cut of Wagyu beef, is buried under a hail of shallots and accompanied by thin, crispy fries. A free-range roast chicken is succulent throughout the leg and the thigh, if a bit dry along the breast. A braised-veal stew is rich and satisfying—the odd, insistent note of orange sweetness in its tomato-and-olive sauce notwithstanding. And a dark-meat chicken fricassee in a green curry, a nod to Grenier’s wife’s native Thailand, is hot enough, and good enough, to rival the output of the better Thai kitchens in the area.
With Chinatown disappearing, and Penn Quarter threatening to go the way of the new Times Square, Bistro d’Oc is still facing a struggle. Yet inside the gracious dining room, it doesn’t show. I can’t remember the last time I heard “Thank you, sir,” so often, or was left to linger, unhurried, over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee despite the fact that I had been occupying a table for the better part of three hours. Very civilized.
Lately, Grenier tells me, that civility is being returned in kind. The city government reopened his street this fall.
Bistro D’Oc, 518 10th St. NW, (202) 393-5444.
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