- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2003

The warm sounds of the jazz duo, piano and guitar waft through Bistro Europa. It must be Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday night at this pan-European restaurant on King Street in Old Town Alexandria. Warm and cool, all at the same time, and so much more pleasant than piped-in rock.
Chef-owner Klaus Keckeisen is a jazz aficionado and offers his dinner guests live music five nights a week. In addition to the music in the restaurant at street level, he has a jazz bar and overflow restaurant upstairs. Thursdays feature a jam session with "jazz, poetry and spoken word open session" upstairs; on Fridays, Fred Barrett and friends (Rex Bauer and Bart Adams) make music on the guitar, bass and drums; and Saturdays is karaoke night upstairs. Suzy Francis entertains downstairs on the piano on Fridays and Saturdays. Patrons can listen, drink and enjoy the full menu upstairs.
Beyond the bar, toward the back of the second floor, is a small lounge with a television set and some easy chairs; beyond that is a pool table. No cover charge; no minimum. It's back to the future.
The kitchen at Bistro Europa is neither sophisticated nor haute but straightforward and honest, with prices to match. Soups are among Mr. Keckeisen's best dishes. Squash soup is a thin puree of vegetables with a pleasant consistency and flavor; cream of white asparagus, a soup du jour, was not heavy with cream, but again a light puree of asparagus, with pieces of the vegetable floating in the soup and just a touch of cream. Pasta-and-bean soup is more like a vegetable soup than the traditional Italian version, but it is well-prepared. All are reminiscent of good home cooking. Nothing fancy, but very satisfying.
Dinner begins with a basket of two different breads and a little dish of excellent olive oil perfumed with chopped garlic and parsley. There is an extensive selection of wines by the glass; the waiters will bring the bottle and let you taste whichever one you order before pouring a glass. It's a very agreeable custom.
The only appetizers at lunchtime are fried calamari or fried mozzarella and a variety of salads. At dinner, mussels steamed in white wine and shrimp sauteed in olive oil and garlic complete the menu along with a dish of cold cuts and cheeses.
Plum tomatoes have bright flavor for a mozzarella salad. Perfumed with basil oil and made with good-quality mozzarella, the salad is a good one, even out of season in winter, but for the absence of real basil and the presence of a heap of marinated onions on top. The onions are much too powerful for this relatively delicate salad; even when removed, their pungent fragrance lingers.
Unfortunately, onions, usually marinated ones, tend to appear on almost all the salads. Even the spinach salad has an onion dressing. Mr. Keckeisen would do well to use the onions sparingly.
A lunchtime entree salade nicoise with fresh tuna is excellent. The fish is cooked to order and is well-complemented by the greens and traditional potatoes, eggs, tomatoes and green beans.
A crab-cake salad was less successful. The crab cake was merely good enough, but not very interesting and not of first quality. The salad was overwhelmed by the large portion of greens. Vinaigrettes are fresh and lively.
At lunch, the kitchen prepares a number of sandwiches on a choice of bread or rolls. These vary from grilled eggplant, squash, roasted red pepper and Brie to Black Forest ham with melted smoked Gouda. Bistro burgers are half price at lunchtime Wednesdays with the purchase of a beverage.
Main courses are divided into nine pasta specials and a dozen European specialties. The latter include a variety of fish, such as snapper, filet of sole and salmon as well as bouillabaisse. Veal Marsala and Wiener schnitzel (breaded veal pan-friend in butter) are staples, as is the jaeger (hunter) schnitzel of breaded pork loin. Both schnitzels are served with spaetzle and red cabbage. Spaetzle are the Austrian and German pasta made from scraps of dough cooked in boiling water and seasoned with butter. At Bistro Europa, they are skinny and uniform, with none of the homey thickness of the genuine Bavarian version.
Specials are offered each day. On a recent evening, it was sauerbraten, which was a disappointment. The beef had none of the sour taste brought on by marinating it for three days in a combination of vinegar and spices. The sauce, although thickened, lacked the richness of heavy cream. The dish resembled a tough pot roast rather than the anticipated German or Austrian specialty.
We had better luck with a special of a deliciously creamy lobster sauce on rigatoni. The pasta was nicely al dente, and the sauce was richly endowed with chunks of fresh lobster.
Pasta dishes on the regular menu include lasagna, cannelloni and gnocchi as well as agnolotti filled with cheese and spinach in a cream sauce, rigatoni with a meat sauce, linguine with mussels and cappellini with clams. Portions are large and easily could be shared as a first course.
Bistro Europa is a cozy neighborhood restaurant with the added (and unusual) attraction of all that jazz. What could be better on a cold winter's evening than to sit and listen to some good music, sip a glass of good wine and have something tasty to eat? But hold those onions.


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