So Very French: Stephane Lezla?s Montsouris is a warm reflection of the City of Light. Credit: (Photograph by Charles Steck)

Americans are notorious for lifting other people’s ideas and manipulating them beyond recognition. Consider the French bistro. The ham fist of Yankee enterprise has so mangled the concept that “bistro” barely has any connection to the places that inspired the term. Stephane Lezla, for one, is all too familiar with the sorry, oversaturated state of the American “bistro.” It’s the very reason the chef and co-owner decided to open Montsouris without any mention of the dreaded b-word.

Lezla hails from Paris. He knows that a bistro used to, more or less, follow the traditional Parisian model: a small, neighborhood operation with butcher paper on the tables, indifferent service, and a chalkboard menu of affordable comforts, from grilled steaks and pommes frites to steaming pots of mussels and hot plates of garlicky escargot.

Perhaps Lezla even knows that the French were the ones to start messing with the bistro. In the 1990s, a few fine-dining chefs decided to abandon their white-tablecloth service in favor of so-called “gastro-bistros,” more casual experiences that nonetheless relied on seasonal ingredients and a chef’s ingenuity. But if that trend—which inspired such operations as the fussy-but-informal Central Michel Richard and Palena Cafe—started to dilute the definition of a bistro, then American restaurateurs have all but destroyed the term.

Here in the States, “bistro” is often a French-perfumed synonym for cheap and casual, two words deeply ingrained in our psyche. Just look around to see how many restaurants abuse the word: Asia Bistro, Bangkok Bistro, Kaz Sushi Bistro, Tabaq Bistro, Viet Bistro, Grapeseed American Bistro, India Bistro, and Mimi’s American Bistro, to name just a few.
And that list of “bistros” doesn’t even include the places that borrow from the concept without any actual reference to the term. “All those types of different cuisines—modern American cuisine, fusion, Spanish tapas—they are bistros,” says Patrick Orange, chef and owner of La Chaumière in Georgetown. These restaurants, he says, not only offer casual seating but “serve some country rustic dishes.”

Even without the word attached, Montsouris is a classic French bistro, fashioned out of the old Johnny’s Half Shell space in Dupont Circle. All the pieces are here: the tile floor, the paper on the tables, the chalkboard, the borderline insolent wait staff. But best of all, Lezla has installed, with only a few additions and subtractions, a true bistro menu. “We wanted to open another place with the food…we are looking to eat at night after we’re done working,” says Lezla, who also co-owns Montmartre on Capitol Hill.

Count me among those who’d like to eat at Montsouris every night after work. Forget burgers and pizza—my idea of comfort food these days involves rustic French cooking, which is not to be confused with “simple” cooking. As Marcel’s chef/owner Robert Wiedmaier (who’s set to open his own gastro-bistro, Brasserie Beck on K Street NW) recently told me, the main reason French bistros don’t flourish anymore is because “to do that type of cooking, you have to have skill,” the kind of stock-making, pâté-producing skills that young chefs often don’t possess. Sebastian Agez, the man who leads the kitchen at Montsouris, has those skills in spades.

Start with the bone marrow—because you may never want to eat anything else. Half of a beef leg bone is poached in chicken stock, roasted, then placed on a rectangular plate outfitted with two oval slices of grilled rustic bread and a hillock of sea salt. Each composed bite—the marrow slathered on the bread sprinkled with salt—hits your mouth like a fine symphony tickles your ears: the earthy marrow all rumbling bass notes, the salt the high C’s over the top. Once it reaches room temperature, the country pâté in a chilled Mason jar provides similarly rich and fatty thrills when spread on grilled bread. (Incidentally, the bread itself is heavy with stale, smoky char, as if the grill could use a good scrubbing.)
The steaks are the showpieces here. When you order a cut medium rare, your steak arrives with a wide streak of luscious red meat in the center, its juices still sealed in the flesh. The best of the lot is a particularly un-bistro cut, a strip of Kobe beef from Australia; but I’ll be damned if I care when the flesh is this lush, tender, and full of salty goodness. Among the standard cuts, the entrecôte béarnaise, a generous slab of rib-eye paired with the tarragon-laced sauce, is a rich wallop of meat and butter. Only the butcher’s steak (aka hanger steak) proves to be a tough slog, its chewy membrane overshadowing its intense meaty flavor.

The frites that accompany several steaks are terrific, crisp and loaded with spuddy savor, but they’re not the only potato offering worth sampling. The potato gratin, with tubers sliced as thin as puff pastry, is topped with a bubbling layer of cheese that coats those spuds in a creamy gooeyness that doesn’t drown out the potato flavor. The craftsmanship of the gratin is nearly as expert as the balancing act of the seemingly ho-hum spinach salad, which mixes bleu cheese, roasted pears, and toasted pecans to a startlingly sweet-salty-toasty effect.

The funny thing is, despite its embrace of the bistro concept, Montsouris also serves up a mean dish of seared scallops—about as bistro as corn dogs—paired with small pearls of squid-ink pasta and a carrot-emulsion that just hints at the vegetable’s sweetness. It’s the only dish I ate twice here, which says something about the quality of the entree and about Montsouris’ willingness to embrace the American concept of tampering with a good thing.

Montsouris, 2002 P St. NW, (202) 833-4180

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x466.