- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2001

The first things you notice when you enter the long, narrow, railroad-car-like Bistro Bernoise at 5120 MacArthur Boulevard are the brightly painted walls (yellow on top, purple on the bottom) and the wooden toys and other objects mounted on them. They're charming. I especially liked the horse pulling a wagonload of logs. Chef-owner Herbert Kerschbaumer proudly points them out, explaining that many of them were carved by his father and that they were his childhood toys. The wagon was a favorite, too.
Chef Kerschbaumer comes from Bern, Switzerland's capital. He has been in this country for 20 years, working as a chef at La Nicoise and at a restaurant in Baltimore. For seven years he has had a catering business, which he continues to operate. Bistro Bernoise has been open for more than a year.
Bistro Bernoise is a suburban-type neighborhood restaurant with such specials as Tuesday Swiss fondue (cheese) night, Wednesday "seafood mania," Thursday half-price wine night and Saturday dessert extravaganza. On a recent Saturday there were a handful of pastries and a nice, creamy not-too-dark chocolate mousse available. (Only two desserts, including the mousse, were made in house.) Sunday is paella fiesta.
For early birds (5 to 7 p.m.), the Bistro offers a three-course meal for $14.95.
Once a month, Mr. Kerschbaumer gives a cooking class to about 15 students who choose what they cook. Classes are held on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and the "cooks" enjoy their efforts washed down with a glass of wine at the conclusion of class.
Chef Kerschbaumer is a voluble, good-natured host who spends time with his guests to kibitz about food, wine and the state of affairs in Switzerland. (Very quiet.)
Except for the Tuesday night fondue and a couple of Swiss wines, the menu is what used to be called Continental, rather than Swiss. Starters at lunch and dinner include an excellent roasted tomato soup made with both sun-dried and fresh tomatoes, fried calamari and garlic shrimp. Although the menu describes the latter as sauteed with olive oil and parsley, in fact the shrimp, cooked a little too long, are served in a creamy tomato sauce with only the faintest touch of garlic. The sauce is good, but don't expect the tangy taste that garlic shrimp usually means.
Bistro salad is a fresh mixture of different kinds of greens (onionphobes beware, and remember to request a serving without onions) with a light vinaigrette. A well-prepared whole artichoke is served with a champagne vinaigrette. Like many of Chef Kerschbaumer's dishes, the sauce was underspiced.
Starter specials at a recent dinner included a vol-au-vent filled with creamy goat cheese. The puff pastry shell was not quite crisp enough and the cheese on a base of a few mushroom bits would have been better with less cheese and more mushrooms, but the idea is a tasty one. With a better balance of ingredients, the vol-au-vent could be delicious.
A special entree one evening was a half roasted duck a substantial portion of well prepared bird. The outside was deliciously crisp, the meat juicy and nicely pink. Another special was an excellent preparation of ravioli stuffed with a duxelles of mushrooms in a creamy Alfredo sauce. It's a rich and satisfying dish.
One of our party ordered crab cakes from the regular menu but was informed that the kitchen had run out of crabmeat. That shouldn't happen to a menu staple, particularly our region's signature dish, on a Saturday night.
The regular menu includes mussels in white wine, salmon, a portobello mushroom Napoleon, penne with chicken and a New York strip steak with french fries. Specials at our dinner, in addition to the duck and the ravioli, included filet mignon, swordfish and lamb.
The portobello Napoleon a dish that has become as ubiquitous in Washington as creme brulee is a fine vegetarian choice. The grilled mushroom is lightly coated with goat cheese and topped with grilled zucchini and bits of tomato, and served with an assortment of steamed vegetables. It shows that Chef Kerschbaumer is a talented chef.
At lunch, the menu includes main course salads and sandwiches in addition to the appetizers available at dinner, and a handful of entrees. As behooves any genuine bistro, "steak and frites" are always available. But a negative note: The rolls served with the meal are poor-quality store-bought. In a city with so much good bread available, a restaurant should do better. Service can be unprofessional and inefficient.
On the whole, Bistro Bernoise is a pleasant little neighborhood eatery serving good if not great food in a cheerful atmosphere.

RESTAURANT: Bistro Bernoise, 5120 MacArthur Blvd., 202/686-3939
HOURS: Lunch Tuesday to Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner Tuesday to Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. Closed Monday
PRICES: Starters and salads $4 to $8 (lunch), $4.25 to $6 (dinner); sandwiches $5 to $8; entrees $10 to $13 (lunch), $8 to $22 (dinner)
CREDIT CARDS: Major cards
PARKING: Street parking
ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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