- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

It's a sweet little restaurant, Bistrot Lafayette, on King Street in Alexandria, just a few blocks up from the hustle-bustle at King and Washington streets. With salmon-colored walls, French prints and posters, art-deco style wall sconces and wooden tables, the restaurant is reminiscent of small cafes in the French countryside or even in Haiti's once-stylish Petionville, in the hills above Port-au-Prince.
Chef and part owner Keo Koumtakoun wife Marie takes care of the front of the house turns out well-prepared traditional French dishes. Washingtonians will remember Mr. Koumtakoun, who was born in Laos but has lived in this area for almost 16 years, for the fine work he did at Saveur on Wisconsin Avenue above Georgetown. Now he has his own place, and it's a very pleasant little place indeed.
The cooking is solid bourgeois food. A vegetable soup of the day makes a good beginning on a cool spring day. It's a light broth with chunks of carrots, celery and potatoes. French onion soup with grated Gruyere is a solid standard.
First courses range from the ubiquitous Caesar salad to tuna tartare, fresh foie gras with pears, and calamari sauteed with roasted bell peppers and black olives.
A special salad of tomato and avocado with a slice of creamy, delicate goat cheese was a simple delight. The avocado was at its peak, and even the winter tomato was rich in flavor. An excellent creamy vinaigrette added the necessary tartness to the vegetables and the cheese.
Unfortunately, a marinated mackerel was not as successful. A standard bistro first course in France, mackerel in white wine can be delicious. At Bistrot Lafayette, chunks of fish are served atop a green salad with the traditional marinated raw onion rings. The fish was almost bitter, dry, hard to remove from the skin and unappetizing on the plate. When properly prepared and served in filets rather than thick chunks, this can be a fine first course, but Bistrot Lafayette's version needs attention.
A special of a mild white fish, similar to halibut, in a white wine beurre blanc with mushrooms, on the other hand, was first-rate, the fish fresh and perfectly cooked. The accompanying mashed potatoes, lightly sauteed to give the potatoes a bit of crust, were equally good.
Meat is not neglected. Rack of lamb is excellent. Although it was not presented with fresh thyme jus and roasted garlic mousseline as described on the menu, the slightly sweet sauce complemented the lamb beautifully. The lamb comes to the table deboned, in thin slices with the bones on the side. It's an excellent way of serving the meat and relieves the diner of the task.
Black Angus steak, topped with a Roquefort sauce, was a delicious special one evening. The steak was so tender and flavorful that it hardly needed the cheese. A fine preparation. Both the lamb and the beef were accompanied by the same side of mashed potatoes topped with vegetables.
The choices of main courses include blackened tuna in a green peppercorn sauce, grilled salmon, sea scallops Provencal (with tomatoes, garlic and anise), steak tartare and duck breast with poached pears, as well as several daily specials.
Lunchtime is a busy time in Old Town and Bistrot Lafayette (could it be named because it is almost at the corner of Fayette Street? Or perhaps the other way around, that the locale was chosen to honor the marquis?) has a three-course prix-fixe menu for $16.95. The first course is a choice between salad, pate maison or soup of the day; the main course is the fish of the day, mussels or leg of lamb; dessert of the day rounds up the meal.
Among the desserts, cheesecake with a raspberry coulis is rich and satisfying. Although not a French dessert, the Bistrot Lafayette version is excellent. Tarte Tatin consists of warm caramelized apples on a butter cookie. The pastry is thick, brittle and hard to cut, but the flavor is buttery and good. It's not a classic tarte Tatin at all, but with a scoop of good vanilla ice cream, it's a tasty finale to a good meal.
Guests are made to feel welcome, and service is friendly if a bit disorganized. There are a number of wines by the glass, but the house red wines at $5.75 are a bit on the vinegary side. Stick to the slightly higher-priced reds.
Bistrot Lafayette is not an inexpensive restaurant, and it seems out of keeping for the restaurant to serve pats of butter still wrapped in foil (some of which are not always quite fresh). That's a minor quibble, though. The restaurant has a cozy atmosphere, and the diner leaves, appetite sated, wishing Mr. Koumtakoun well-deserved success.

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