Photos: Joshua Lanier/DC Spotlight Newspaper
October 1, 2012
McLean, Virginia, has always had a reputation as a pleasant suburb, known for its opulent mansions and appealing location adjacent to Great Falls Park. However, given that McLean is close to Bethesda in terms of demographics, one might be surprised to find that it offers relatively few dining options. Until recently, a trip down the heart of Chain Bridge Road—the main drag, as it were—featured a Domino’s, a Japanese restaurant, and Rocco’s, an Italian trattoria notable more for its fairway-like terrace than its food.
Part of the problem is McLean’s absence of foot traffic. Chain Bridge Road is a broad avenue lined with banks and strip malls, meaning that denizens in search of a good meal are unlikely to stumble upon a place to eat. Perhaps, in the past, this impediment scared off other prospective restaurateurs. However, Chef Domenico Cornacchia and his business partner, Aykan Demiroglu, were not to be deterred. After the success of Assaggi, the celebrated Italian restaurant located in Bethesda, the pair had enough confidence in the quality of their product—and in the area’s demand for an upscale restaurant—to open their latest venture in the Langley Shopping Center.
Bistro Vivant, which Cornacchia describes as “a casual French bistro,” opened in mid-summer to accolades from patrons and press alike. Demiroglu, a native of Turkey, knows a thing or two about French cuisine, having attended French schools in Istanbul. And Cornacchia, an Italian, has proven himself versatile enough to tackle classic French recipes with gusto. As floor manager Shannon Paretzky attests after watching Cornacchia in action, “A good chef can do any food. After watching [Domenico] every day, I’m convinced there is nothing he can’t do.”
Bistro Vivant offers outdoor seating during the summer and early fall, though the view of the parking lot leaves something to be desired. The better bet is the small but convivial indoor dining room, where a steady stream of lively conversation never drowns out a soundtrack of the latest French pop hits. The centerpiece is a wall-sized chalkboard advertising nightly specials in various bright colors.
Olives Provençal ($5) may seem like a pre-meal snack, but these sweet olives, seasoned with orange zest and garlic cloves, are likely to provide fodder for ongoing grazing until the check comes. A salad is composed of large, sweet, quartered beets arranged atop a wide smear of savory goat cheese ($11). The chicken liver terrine ($6) is sprinkled with sea salt and decadently spread across crispy toasted bread. The standout appetizer just might be steak tartare ($16): Cornacchia’s variation on the classic dish is heartier than expected, with a light, lemony pile of top-grade, New York strip presented alongside a heap of greens.
While most dishes are traditionally prepared and solidly executed, the mussels Villeroi ($12) are a departure from the usual white wine and shallots: here, the creamy red sauce packs a kick of cayenne pepper. Hanger steak ($22) is meaty and tender, brushed with a complex mustard sauce and served atop some seriously addictive mashed potatoes. (The secret ingredients are Roquefort cheese and arugula). A thick slab of Arctic char ($23) is accompanied by artichokes and heirloom tomatoes, lightly seared in a vinaigrette.
For dessert, the intensely sweet baked chocolate mousse ($9) is one of the most popular items on the menu, but a more interesting option might be the peach cake ($12). This light, fluffy variation on pound cake, stuffed with morsels of peach and topped with larger slices, is the ideal chaser for a full portion of steak and potatoes.
The wine list at Bistro Vivant is chockfull of affordably priced French wines, and the staff, following the lead of the two affable owners, are quick to offer pairings, suggestions, and bits of information or anecdotes about the restaurant in a friendly, unobtrusive manner. True to its name (vivant is French for ‘lively’), this new venture offers an ample helping of joie de vivre that should play out well in a neighborhood which, until recently, had been starving for an unpretentious neighborhood bistro.