Gastro bistros are all the rage in Paris, where marquee chefs have all but abandoned their Michelin-starred fine-dining rooms to open intimate neighborhood cafes. The trend was not lost on Christophe Poteaux, a Frenchman who has cooked at Daniel in New York, L’Orangerie in Los Angeles, and most recently Aquarelle in DC. His place, Bastille, on the fringes of Old Town Alexandria, captures the spirit of the modern Paris bistro, where French tradition meets global cuisine.
Casually chic with splashy abstract paintings and rustic wood floors, Bastille is a place where suits relax over lunch, stylish singles sip Provençal spritzers (Wolfberger Cremant D’Alsace rosé spiked with lavender syrup and buds) at the wine bar, and couples and families sup. The thoughtful list of Old and New World wines—with surprises like regional reds from the Loire—offers three- and six-ounce pours at modest prices, and beers include the hard-to-find Belgian-style Trois Monts from France.
Poteaux’s menu nods toward flavors from the Mediterranean, Asia, and even California. This is not the cream-and-butter-heavy cuisine of bistros past but one of deep, exotic flavors—of saffron, long peppers, harissa. Sourcing—Kurobuta pork, Scottish salmon—suggests a more upscale dining room. And Poteaux’s upbringing—he worked at his cousin’s Parisian bistro and at his grandfather’s pastry shop in Bordeaux before taking up the sauté pans at more glamorous addresses—set the stage for his rustic yet often daring cooking.
Roasted shallots perfume a dazzling vinaigrette drizzled over frisée and a deep-fried round of liquid goat cheese. Duck comes three ways on a long white plate: rich crisp-skinned confit, chewy pink-and-white slices of prosciutto, and smoky rillettes. Airy boudin blanc mates beautifully with sweet-onion marmalade and a luscious purée of parsnips. All are appetizers but could double as mini meals.
Entrées include half a roasted free-range chicken scented with 40 garlic cloves (he counts them) and set atop Aligot mashed potatoes, a dish from central France made with cheese and butter. A not-too-thick, not-too-thin pork chop is caramelized with apple cider. Just as good is a Parisian steak with perfect French fries and a complex sauce made from long peppers (a relative of black peppercorn) and chocolate—though you’d be hard pressed to identify either.
France’s long tradition of Sunday dinner clearly made an impression on Poteaux. Bastille offers a $23 three-course repast on Sunday evenings featuring such bistro classics as coq au vin, moules frites, and cassoulet with duck confit and Toulouse sausage. But even here there are more modish turns, like a luxuriant truffled macaroni gratin and savory red-wine-braised short ribs with cipollini.
The kitchen falters a bit with a grilled-sausage-and-radicchio dish; the sausage is dry and bland. And although I love the idea of calamari beignets, and the yogurt harissa dip that comes with them, there’s too much beignet and not enough calamari.
Despite the years he spent at his patissier grandfather’s side, Poteaux was wise enough to bring on pastry chef Michelle Garbee from Aquarelle to help him—though it’s something of a no-brainer as they plan to be married.
Garbee’s gingerbread cake with cubelets of maple-glazed squash and apple makes you sit up and take notice. Also likable is the creamy Valrhona chocolate marquise, a confection somewhere between mousse and pudding. Most stunning of all is a red-wine-poached pear filled with ricotta and hazelnuts, a linzer cookie by its side.
Almost every Parisian neighborhood has a Bastille. Wouldn’t it be lovely to think that someday every neighborhood here might have one, too?