Asian-style noodle outlets are bobbing up all over the District these days, sometimes in pretty unusual places.

On a recent evening, I find myself twirling a fork through a pile of thick udon that’s sitting in a shallow puddle of dark broth, topped with a soft runny egg. To the side of the noodles is a small, flaky fillet of seared hamachi atop a thicket of leeks and a sticky block of duck confit. The dish is rich in spice and Dead Sea salty, requiring another round of frothy brew to mellow things out. It’s also quite filling.

The only thing missing from this hearty meal of Americanized Japanese-French fusion: chopsticks. And that glaring omission reminds me of where I am: the bar at Café Saint-Ex, where chef Billy Klein has lately been churning out fare that’s significantly fancier than the bistro’s burger and roasted chicken standbys.

“I’ve been wanting to get some chopsticks in here,” says Klein. “I keep meaning to order them. I think that would be the last little detail to make the dish a whole lot of fun for the guests.”

Klein’s Asian-themed menu noodling isn’t limited to the noodles. In recent weeks, he’s been putting out plates of veal sweetbreads dressed in a sweet and spicy General Tso’s sauce—a combination he describes as “approachable for people who weren’t necessarily comfortable eating offal.” At least in theory. The saucy organs weren’t selling so well recently, so Klein took them off the menu—but vows to give the glandular grub another chance soon.

Sure, this heightened level of sophistication is indicative of a larger trend sweeping through casual restaurants citywide. It’s hard to find mac ‘n’ cheese nowadays without bits of truffle, gourmet bacon, or lobster. (Saint-Ex, for one, goes with the crustacean). But, for Klein, the long march toward more intricate, ornate and multi-ethnic plates also represents an opportunity to regain the spotlight from Saint-Ex’s sister bar down the street.

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When it opened in 2003, Saint-Ex was an early pioneer on what’s now 14th Street NW’s thriving restaurant row. Not only did the French aviator-themed venue help spur the neighborhood’s culinary renaissance, it also birthed one the industry’s brightest stars: chef Barton Seaver, now a National Geographic Fellow and an outspoken author on sustainability issues.

Seaver split from Saint-Ex nearly five years ago. But his legacy is easily spotted while perusing the current menu. Virtually every protein is identified by its sourcing: Creekstone Farm beef short ribs, Hudson Valley duck breast, Strube Ranch wagyu top sirloin.

“He really kind of knocked it into our heads, what it’s like to be somewhat responsible and try to make a difference with your purveyors,” says owner Mike Benson.

Seaver’s legacy at Saint-Ex isn’t confined to the eatery’s ethics—or its tendency towards excessively descriptive menu items. It also plays a role in pricing, which has been a subject of some criticism. The joint charges as much as $7.27 for a can of beer (locally sourced, craft-brewed, naturally) and $15 for a burger (grass-fed; add $1 extra for cheese). No wonder neighborhood cynics call the place “Saint Expensive.”

Benson says his prices are in line with those of neighboring restaurants, including Marvin and Local 16. He’s right: Marvin charges the same $15 for its burger, and Saint-Ex’s $28 pork chop costs just three bucks more than Marvin’s pork shank. But, with Saint-Ex predating Marvin and opening the same year as Local 16, Benson’s boîte may have had more to do with setting the area price standard than merely reflecting it.

In 2005, Benson opened another spot just a few doors down, Bar Pilar, which he originally envisioned as a more casual counterpart to the bistro vibe at Saint-Ex. “Initially, Bar Pilar was going to be more like comfort food. And a bar,” he says.

For a while, it was. But Seaver eventually decided to shake things up. “Bart just came to me, and he’s like, ‘Look, with food costs and everything else, this is kind of silly,’” Benson recalls. “We’re actually spending more money to do comfort food than if I could just do a menu over here where we use a lot of the same vendors that we’re using for Saint-Ex.’”

And that, in a nutshell, is how Bar Pilar lost its tater tots and grilled cheese. It wasn’t until Seaver left and new chef Justin Bittner came in, however, that the place became known for its offal happy hour. Under Bittner’s direction, Bar Pilar has become a sort of critical darling, at least for a bar. Awarded two stars, Pilar recently earned a place in Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema’s 2011 spring dining guide. It’s also among Washingtonian critic Todd Kliman’s most frequent recommendations to diners on his Web chats.

“It’s one of those things where you build a place to be everyone’s favorite drinking hole, then all of sudden people are like, ‘Man, the food here is outstanding,’” says Benson. “Next thing you know, Justin’s going up to the [James] Beard House and everything.”

But as Pilar’s prestige rose, it left once-proud Saint-Ex feeling like the family’s homely underachiever. The elder of the two bars hasn’t appeared in a Post dining guide since Seaver was running the place back in 2005. The lingering attention on Bittner and Pilar has left little room in the spotlight for Klein, who served as Seaver’s chef de cuisine before moving up to Saint-Ex’s top slot in 2007.

Pilar’s popularity “may have turned the heat up on Billy a little bit,” Benson says. With the current menu changes, Saint-Ex looks like it’s finally responding.

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Klein says he doesn’t begrudge Bittner’s acclaim. The two previously worked together at Baltimore’s Elkridge Furnace Inn and remain friends. This past summer, though, offered a new opportunity for Klein to rethink, retool and refocus attention.

Saint-Ex closed its kitchen for a sweeping equipment upgrade, which Benson describes as necessary improvements: The gear had gone through the normal wear and tear, and the whole bistro now faced increasing competition in a neighborhood teeming with new restaurants. “We’ve been open for nine years,” Benson says. “It was time to fix the pieces….Instead of trying to do it piecemeal, we just ripped everything out and started with a brand-new kitchen.”

While the physical kitchen space is largely the same size, the reconfiguring has given Klein more real estate, more equipment, and more ability to experiment. “We were held back a lot by the lack of equipment we had,” the chef says. Even seared scallops were a challenge under the old setup.

The shiny, new kitchen has fostered a “huge load of inspiration,” Klein says. But he’s not breaking out the liquid nitrogen quite yet. Benson notes that his favorite item, a simple steak and cheese sandwich, remains a lunchtime staple. Other items that had been dropped from the dinner menu to make way for newer dishes, like sweet potato fries and a fried green tomato BLT, have since returned after some protests. “A lot of people were pissed off,” says Klein. “And I don’t want to lose those people.”

Still, he hopes to expand the clientele through more “touches of elegance,” he says. “We’re still a modern American bistro. We’re just trying to become a little more modern.”

The roasted cauliflower soup ($9) bears the consistency of Dijon mustard with none of the spice. Scattered chunks of scallop and a heap of sweet and savory bacon jam make the whole bowl worthwhile.

The smoked andouille pâté (also $9) arrives chunkier than expected, but packs plenty of spice. There’s a briny saltiness on the back end, which should only help beer sales.

I found the pork chop ($28) and sirloin ($25) perfectly satisfactory. But both were outshined by their sides: tasty duck fat fingerlings with the pork and a spaghetti squash carbonara accompanying the steak. The latter side dish, whipped up with crème fraîche and bacon, could easily sell on its own.

For now, patrons who want to do a real-time comparison between the new Satin-Ex and the old Bar Pilar are out of luck. Saint-Ex’s sister restaurant is currently closed for its own renovations. Benson says it should reopen (with much the same menu) around the first of the year.

Until then, at least, Klein has the spotlight all to himself.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

Café Saint-Ex, 1847 14th St. NW, (202) 265-7839

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