In the drama-filled restaurant world, you never know who’s going to end up where.
For nearly five years, Bezu Restaurant & Bar has been a pretty gem in a Potomac strip shopping mall, serving French-Asian cuisine orchestrated by chef and co-owner Dennis Friedman. But after an acrimonious split in October, partner Eddie Benaim bought out Friedman.
Now, Friedman is opening his own place, Newton’s Table, in early March in Bethesda’s defunct Rock Creek restaurant (whose demise is another saga). And Benaim has hired longtime chef Francis Layrle, the top toque at the French Embassy for nearly 30 years.
Layrle has cooked for world leaders and movie stars, and during the Reagan administration was offered the post of White House chef (he declined; “frankly, I was dumb,” he says).
With such a fine catch in the kitchen, Bezu needed another visit.
When the changeover occurred, owner Benaim said he wanted to lower prices. Most entrées are under $30, but with an appetizer and wine, dinner here can easily end up costing $75 a person, so this is not a casual night out. As for the menu, it’s less edgy and adventurous than Friedman’s fusion food. Layrle’s forté is the cuisine of southern France, and that’s what he has brought to the table.
I guess I should have worn a wig or gone Goth, because I ate at Bezu three times, and was noticed twice by Benaim, whom I had met previously. He also reintroduced me to Layrle, whom I remember from his early days at the French Embassy. Restaurant reviewers dread being recognized; if the chef and staff know a critic is in the house, presumably they’ll pour on the charm and take extra care in the kitchen. I need to see what it’s like for anybody to eat in the restaurant, without special treatment.
In a subsequent phone call, Layrle, a modest and down-to-earth man, stressed that he did nothing different to my party’s meals. “For me, clients are all the same,” he said. “I have to be consistent.”
Consistency, of course, is a restaurant’s toughest challenge. So is the kitchen consistent? For the most part, yes. The food is both lovely to look at and lovely to eat. And if you stick with seafood and multi-ingredient dishes that showcase Layrle’s sauces, you can’t go wrong. But what the kitchen doesn’t do so well on are hunks of meat, also the priciest dishes on the menu.
On one off-evening, none of the three entrées we ordered were cooked as requested. The $38 veal chop, ordered medium rare, arrived without a hint of pink, and with no sign of a juicy interior; furthermore, it was not a very thick or substantial chop. Conversely, the $32 rack of lamb, also ordered medium rare, was served rare. Strangely chewy, it fell far short of earning the “T” word from my husband. (In his family, every food is described as either tender or moist.)
But while those two dishes failed to impress, I’m still thinking about the daube de boeuf, the Provençal beef stew braised in red wine and made here with flat-iron steak. I hate to use the melt-in-your-mouth cliché, but this soulful dish didn’t require much chewing, just oohing.
The same goes for the seafood. A delicate, sautéed rainbow trout, available only at lunch, was served with an addictive sauce that included capers, parsley and tomato. It just begged to be sopped up with bread. Ditto for a moist black cod poached in olive oil and served atop a slightly spicy ragout of tomato, bell peppers, garlic and piment d’Espelette (a Basque chili pepper). In fact, I probably ate an entire loaf of the crusty bread during my visits here. It’s served at the beginning of each meal with complimentary black olive tapenade and olive oil.
Two seafood appetizers were standouts, too—soft calamari, thinly sliced and served in a tangle with garlic, tomato, chorizo, olives, capers, basil, parsley, parmesan and croutons; and Laughing Bird shrimp, a stunning presentation of poached white shrimp from Belize encircling a mosaic mound of chopped fresh fruit. The only so-so seafood I tried were the mussels, served in a bland white wine and shallot broth.
If you have room for dessert, skip the chocolate tart and opt for the crêpes Suzette. It may not be the trendiest finish in town, but the caramelized sauce spiked with Grand Marnier and Cointreau is divine. Otherwise, go for the house-made and intensely flavored passion fruit and mango sorbets, a refreshing end.
Bezu is still the elegant and comfortable apricot-colored cocoon it was when it first opened, and the service is mature, sophisticated and knowledgeable.
In the constantly changing restaurant world, you may never know who’s going to end up where, but now that Francis Layrle is in this kitchen, let’s hope he sticks around.