Tour de France

Yannick Cam’s new bistro? C’est magnifique.



If another chef predicted that on his restaurant’s Web site, it’d be considered puffery. But Yannick Cam, chef-owner of Bethesda’s new Bistro Provence, is actually being modest. The restaurant isn’t just Bethesda’s best French dining experience, it’s one of the city’s best dining experiences, period.

Not that that should come as any surprise. Cam has been around the restaurant block, and Bethesda was in need of a well-seasoned traveler. During Reagan’s heyday, he introduced Washington to precious-sized portions of nouvelle cuisine at Le Pavillon. From there, he went on to open and close about a half-dozen hip-hot restaurants.

Cam’s current concept is a downscale version of Provence, one of the downtown eateries he ran in the 1990s. Entrée prices—which average in the mid-$20s—are less expensive here in Bethesda, even “cheap for the quality,” according to Cam. A three-course dinner, however, with a glass of wine, tax and tip, will cost about $70 a head at Bistro Provence, and if you select one of the pricey bottles on the all-French wine list, we’re talking well above $100 a person.

Cam’s move to Maryland marks his first solo venture. No investors. No partners. “When you have investors, they always have ideas of how the restaurant should be run,” Cam says. As the sole proprietor, “you know if you screw up, it’s you.”

I can’t vouch for Cam’s financial acumen, but so long as he’s in charge of the cooking, the food should be a success. (The service is another matter; more about that later.) Not that a meal here is fault-free. But it’s really more a question of what’s really good and what’s just good. In fact, that’s how I’d divide the dishes I tried.

Really good: For starters, the marinated roasted peppers with goat cheese and kalamata olives is a simple dish that simply works well together—silky peppers, creamy-tangy goat cheese, pungent olives. Fresh, topnotch ingredients also are gathered together for the asparagus salad—although the version we were served was different from the description on the menu (the quail eggs were hard-boiled, not poached; there were olives, not bacon, and where was the custard?). No matter, I’d eat it again, whatever was tossed in there. An appetizer special of risotto with shrimp was as good as it looked: Pretty pink shrimp were arranged in a circle atop the tomato- and saffron-infused rice, cooked just enough to retain its bite.

As for main courses, if the veal chop is a special, order it. On the evening I had it, the tender, meaty chop was served medium rare with a rich pan sauce and woodsy artichoke hearts. At the waiter’s suggestion, I ordered an accompaniment of polenta with a parmesan crust—a velvety, cheesy disk to die for. Eaten together, the veal-artichoke-polenta combination would be on the short list for my last meal. It was heavenly.

Here on earth, I’d go again for the flavor-packed hanger steak, with its mahogany sauce and crisp potatoes. If there’s one complaint about this dish—as well as others—it’s that the kitchen is skimpy with its terrific sauces (bring them on for bread dipping!).

And the desserts? I’d eat all four of the ones I tried again, in this order: apple and mango tarte tatin (a special), lemon galette with raspberry coulis, sugar crepe and molten chocolate cake with caraway ice cream. Made by pastry chef Marco Courseille, who hails from Citronelle, they were all really good. Pastry chef Marco Courseille's lemon galette with raspberry coulis.

Good: The fish dishes were weaker. I liked the sautéed squid appetizer well enough. However our spinach-and-walnut stuffed clams had crossed from juicy to somewhat chewy, as had the monkfish entrée. And the sea scallops served bouillabaisse style was a light and lovely dish, but the broth could have had a tad more taste of the sea.

The roast chicken was fine, though not a standout, and this time, the accompanying polenta was more cooked and less creamy than the version that led to my mad cornmeal crush on a previous evening. Duck breast was fanned into beautiful pink slices of meat, but the bird needed a flavor boost to really sing. And a tian of spinach side dish would have been exemplary save for an unnecessary sprinkling of salt.

At press time, when the restaurant had been open about five weeks, the service was not in the good category. Asked about the complaints, Cam points to a shortage of career wait staff, which he thinks is even harder to find in Bethesda than in the District.

When the restaurant is very busy, look out. There were a number of empty tables on my first visit, and the food and service were nearly flawless. But my second dinner on an unexpectedly crowded Wednesday evening was a different story. The host had no record of our reservation, our table was served a dish even though we hadn’t even ordered yet, it took 40 minutes to get our appetizers, and the main courses were served two seconds after the starter dishes were cleared. The sloppiness of the waiters was jarring compared with the elegance of the food.

Hopefully, as time goes on, the service kinks will be worked out, and Cam will prove successful at managing his own business. Bethesda needs his high-caliber cooking. Let’s pray he’s here to stay.

Bistro Provence

4933 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda
301-656-7373
www.bistroprovence.org

Open

Open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, open for brunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Open for dinner from 5 to 10:30 p.m.Monday through Saturday, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.

Prices

Brunch entrées, $12 to $22; lunch entrées, $12.50 to $20; dinner entrées, $19.50 to $29 (specials sometimes higher)

Reservations

Highly recommended

Wine List

All French selections, with few bottles under $50. Nine wines by the glass.

Favorite Dishes

Marinated roasted peppers with goat cheese and olives, asparagus salad, veal chop (special), hanger steak, country-style polenta with parmesan crust

Favorite Desserts

Take your pick

Good Place to Go For

An urbane evening

Parking

Street parking, paid lot next door, public lots, Bethesda Metro

Carole Sugarman is Bethesda Magazine’s Food Editor.

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