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Keo Kountakoun got acclimated to America by touring France via the D.C. suburbs. Since fleeing Laos in 1978, he’s literally worked at more restaurants than he can remember. He struggles to pronounce the names that come to mindLe Gaulois, Chez Nous, Le Rendezvous.
By opening Le Paradis in Gaithersburg in ’95, and then, two years after that, La Provence in Vienna, Kountakoun took on an only-in-the-States guisean Asian immigrant serving European food to suburban Americans.
His transformation into a local is as unique as his evolution into a chef. Aside from short stints working at Italian, Thai, and Japanese restaurants, Kountakoun has spent the past two decades around French food. He married a French woman, Marie Paul, who’s also his business partner. But Kountakoun insists he’s a self-taught chef. “I learned just from looking,” he explains, pointing out that his résumé includes as many front-of-the-house jobs as kitchen gigs. “I was in the dining room, [but] when I see food, I understand what it needs to come out like that. I understand all the ingredients. I can visualize exactly how it [will] come out and what makes it to be like that. That’s the key.”
Saveur, the restaurant that Kountakoun, together with his wife and his younger brother, Done, opened last December, bears the marks of a man who became a chef because he loved being a waiter. The chef describes his past ventures, both of which he’s sold, as part of the classic French-American restaurant traditionsmall but proper candlelit joints catering to over-45 types who want to see their sophisticated palates reflected in fine china.
Saveur is more modern than that, but not self-consciously so. You can tell Saveur isn’t the first restaurant to occupy its space; the past two renters, the Southwestern Adobe Grill and the fusiony Xing Kuba, are still detectable in the warm-but-not-homey decor. Yet Saveur makes the place over with a conspicuous lack of attitude. When he’s not bound to the stove, Kountakoun likes to mingle, and his social demeanor seems genuine, more Pleased-to-meet-you than You-should-be-pleased-to-meet-me-but-I’ll-pretend-it’s-the-other-way-around-for-the-sake-of-business. His waiters are about as congenial. They know the restaurant well enough to admit that the wine list could stand to be fleshed out, but they’re not afraid to get gushy if you ask for a food recommendation. My friend just about bursts when she receives her entree one night. “Oh!” She says it twice. “Oh! This is just what I wanted. Comfort food!”
The source of her foodgasm is a beef sirloin ragout that’s been set with mushrooms in a pile of fettuccine and whitewashed with a creamy mustard sauce. It is indeed delicioushow could it not be?although it’s not terribly representative of the rest of the menu. Kountakoun is subtle even when he’s throwing a lot at you. His vegetable sides look like little corsages. Probe with your fork and you’ll likely find an onion cut to spread like a fan; lightly charred strips of red pepper; zucchini cut lengthwise, folded over and dotted with fresh thyme; or a dollop of mashed potatoes you’ll want to let linger on your tongue like a good Scotch. An order of pork tenderloin delivers more than you’ve asked forprosciutto, a bed of green lentils, the earthy aroma of porcini juicebut nothing takes away from the pleasure of the finely rendered, pan-seared flesh. I prefer my roasted chicken crisper than it comes here, but since it’s scented with fresh rosemary and paired with wild mushroom fricassee, I’m compelled to gnaw the bones clean regardless.
Kountakoun’s defection to the city was prompted by a desire to cook for a younger audience, to, as he puts it, “do whateverwhatever is popular, whatever is new in the market. I get a chance to explore instead of just being French.” “Whatever” includes a lot of fish and seafood; it seems to be the chef’s forte. The broth of his bouillabaisse is heady with garlic and riddled with top-shelf stuff (I swear to God the single head-on shrimp is as big as a trout), but the dish is rich without being fishy. The mussels appetizer is tastefully unfussyjust a handful of mollusks in an herby vinaigrette that you’ll be sopping up with bread in no time.
Saveur’s lunch and dinner menus differ, and not just in price. Noontime is the only time you can get the scallops Provençal, a plate of thumbnail-sized bay scallops paved over with a light tomato sauce and stripes of pure chopped parsley and garlic. It’s worth planning a trip around.
Desserts are the only things Kountakoun offers that are problematic. Many, like the chocolate mousse, are served inside a bowl made of caramelized sugar. The contraption, with its glassy walls that seem to melt upward, looks cool, but it leaves us wondering how to proceed. Are we supposed to break this thing apart and start sucking on the debris? It’s enough to make us ponder if the chef’s on the verge of becoming too American.
It seems worth pointing out that one of the few edible indications of the chef’s true descent comes in the form of a seaweed-juice reduction that rims his moist, sweet-tasting slabs of soy-blackened tuna. But when I broach the subject of nationality with Kountakoun, it’s clear he gets asked about his background a lot. The reason he left Laos is “political,” he says. “I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced being in a country that believed in democracy and then turned communist, but for myself, it was hell.” The chef bites on the word “hell,” but otherwise he’s just as polite as always. When he tells me later, “What I do comes from loving and understanding,” I gather that he remains an ambassador of the place he fled no matter what he puts on the plate.
Saveur, 2218 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 333-5885.
Over two decades, Pierre Chauvet, the chef-owner of La Fourchette, has probably seen more neighboring restaurants come and go than those restaurants ever saw customers. The French bistro is a rare Adams Morgan stalwart because it never changesthe onion soup is as tops today as I’ve heard it was in the ’70s, and, reportedly, the kitchen still goes through roughly 50 pounds of butter and 48 quarts of cream a week. The asparagus I’m served is dynamiteplump, faintly pungent, blanketed in a creamy vinaigretteand the entree that follows is even better. It’s chicken, ham, and cheese encased in pastry, and, yes, the shell flakes like a croissant. The only news here is that it’s La Fourchette’s season: The flowers in the dining room are fresh, and the patio is full.
La Fourchette, 2429 18th St. NW, (202) 332-3077.