- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 18, 2002

Bonjour, mes amis. There's a replica of a Parisian bistro newly born and thriving on Woodmont Avenue in downtown Bethesda. Mon Ami Gabi the newest enterprise of chef-owner Gabino Sotelino (the other "Gabis" are in Chicago; Oak Brook, Ill.; and Las Vegas) has taken Bethesda by storm. Open only a week, the restaurant was packed on a recent Friday night, with diners arriving as late as 10:30.
It isn't hard to see why Mon Ami Gabi is instantly popular. First, the place is delightfully reminiscent of La Coupole or Le Dome, the legendary French Left Bank brasseries. Dark paneling; tiny old-fashioned grayish tiles on the floor; a room divider made of wine bottles; warm, crusty sourdough baguettes served whole in paper bags with whipped unsalted butter on each table; fake blackboards with the restaurant's specialties on the walls; high ceilings; an attractive small bar at the entrance with tables for waiting or sipping. You get the picture: a warm, friendly, informal and enticing locale to enjoy an excellent simple meal at reasonable prices.
Despite the crowds happily munching away and its recent opening, Mon Ami Gabi managed to turn out food cooked as ordered (although not always piping hot), all of it very good and some of it outstanding.
Gabi's menu is very Parisian: oysters, shrimp and scallops, and steak with french fries are the stars. The classic steaks are thin, 9-ounce top sirloin, garnished with maitre d'hotel butter, a brandy peppercorn sauce (mostly pepper and not much sauce), a red-wine Bordelaise sauce or a Roquefort butter sauce. The other steaks are hanger steaks with mustard or anchovy sauces, and the more expensive cuts: a filet with a red-wine reduction and a New York strip.
All steaks are served with delicious "frites." The potatoes look like fettucine thin and wide. Although they could have been hotter, they were wonderful. Equally delicious are crispy garlic potatoes served with some of the entrees.
Side orders of the potatoes are available, as are baked ratatouille, string beans, garlic mushrooms, and fresh, tasty garlic spinach.
Aside from the beef, Gabi's menu offers half a dozen fish dishes, plus a fish of the day and bouillabaisse Marseillaise. Skate, rarely seen on American menus, is served with caper lemon butter rather than the traditional black butter sauce.
The "plats saisonniers," or seasonal dishes, include roast duck, a thin paillard of chicken breast, roast pork tenderloin, cassoulet Toulousain a combination of lamb, pork sausage, duck confit and beans and a wonderful, juicy half roast chicken, served with roasted garlic, tiny pearl onions and mushrooms.
The beginning and end of the meal should not be neglected. Gratineed sea scallops are sensational. Thinly sliced, tender scallops are served in a shell (three shells per portion) in a wine sauce topped with just enough cheese to give a creamy depth to the dish. Even people who don't ordinarily like scallops will sop up the sauce with some of that crusty bread.
Shrimp Florentine is another outstanding starter. Five large shrimp rest on a bed of slightly creamy spinach with a touch of tomato.
Steamed mussels, steamed clams provencal or in an herb-garlic broth, baked oysters with spinach, oysters on the half-shell, scallop ceviche, shrimp cocktails and combinations of shellfish make choosing a first course difficult.
For those who prefer something other than seafood, there is onion soup befitting a respectable French brasserie and a soup of the day, chicken liver pate, a cheese plate and a fine, buttery onion tart served with a small mound of salad greens. Salads are also excellent especially the Belgian endive salad, a green salad with slices of endive, crumbled blue cheese, walnuts and slivers of roasted pear dressed with balsamic vinaigrette.
Desserts should not be overlooked. Sliced strawberries marinated in grand marnier are out of the ordinary. Creme brulee is rich, smooth and creamy, with a light crunchy melted-sugar crust. Individual tartes Tatin are buttery, caramelized apples on delicate flaky pastry delicious. There are also dessert crepes filled with such tempters as bananas Foster sauce, and chocolate and bananas. You can't go wrong with any of them.
At lunch, prices are slightly lower, and sandwiches and quiche are added to the menu, along with a few entree salads, such as shrimp remoulade and salade nicoise.
The wine list is exclusively French and includes a very pleasant Beaujolais Villages for $28. A roving wine cart with about a dozen wines can help a diner choose wine by the glass and offers the possibility of sampling before deciding. Charming idea.
Mon Ami Gabi leaves a pleasant aftertaste from all points of view. The restaurant is friendly, attractive and animated. Gabi's is not haute cuisine or fancy cooking, but the food is just right for an informal satisfying dinner or lunch.
The service couldn't be better. Our waitress, Margot, was accommodating, intelligent, efficient, knowledgeable and delightful. Bon appetit, mes amis.


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