- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Chef Dennis Friedman has a good idea: He fuses French and Asian cuisines at Bistro Asiatique, a handsome restaurant in Bethesda. And why not? Chinese and French cooking are two classic world cuisines.

Mr. Friedman is a veteran of Citronelle, Kinkead’s, Indebleu and had stints in New York and Honolulu.

The dining room is divided into five areas of tables and booths. Dark burgundy upholstery, textured walls, stained-glass doors and wooden lattice separating groups of booths suggest the dark and romantic ambience of the Orient. Service is cordial and attentive; everyone here is trying hard.

Dinner starts with a basket of ordinary bread and a tiny dish of good-quality butter. But it’s too sweet, and the eager, friendly waiter seemed surprised when we asked for butter without sugar.

A tempura shrimp cocktail would have been a real winner had it been served hot, as tempura must be. The shrimp are large and succulent and the citrus dipping sauce is tasty and refreshing, but battered, deep-fried morsels become soggy as soon as they lose their heat.

A Caesar salad, which the menu promised was dressed with a “secret recipe,” was bland and uninteresting, with too much romaine and not enough Parmesan. Other interesting appetizers are crispy, cashew nut crusted calamari with a papaya dipping sauce, nori-wrapped tempura tuna, crab cakes and beef poke pines — small, deep-fried meatballs, served with sliced avocados.

The main-course menu offers half a dozen each of meat and fish dishes. Tuna reappears, seared, with Asian slaw. Other fish dishes are pan-seared Chilean sea bass with braised Napa cabbage; a fricassee of lobster; shrimp and sea scallops stir-fried with water chestnuts, scallions and sweet peppers; and rice noodles with shrimp, chicken, scallops and eggs. All reflect cooking with care.

So, too, the meat dishes, including lamb, beef, pork, chicken and duck in traditional cuts. The roast chicken is stuffed with mushrooms, herbs and goat cheese; the pork tenderloin medallions come with coconut-ginger potatoes; lamb shanks are accompanied by a curry-cumin sauce; and the grilled rack of lamb is a mix of loin chops and ribs accompanied by a ragout of wild mushrooms.

The grilled filet mignon, for example, was a fine cut of the tenderloin, served atop a mix of sauteed mushrooms, spinach and a potato gratin, and cooked just to order. The side of fresh spinach was a thoughtful accompaniment, and so was the curiously timid potato gratin. Alas, the spinach and potato were only lukewarm.

Roast duck magret with a sweet orange glaze was prepared just as ordered, on the rare side, with the duck served like pork medallions in chunks rather than in the traditionally thin slices, making it a bit difficult to cut. The rice and Asian greens served with the duck are pleasant enough.

The kitchen has a generous hand with sugar. Not only is the butter sweetened, but many of the meats are glazed with sugary sauces and several vegetable dishes bear a sweet undertone.

Side orders of Chinese cabbage, white asparagus, mashed potatoes and jasmine rice are available at $6, $5 and $4, respectively.

Desserts feature ice creams and sorbets in exotic flavors made by Gifford’s, the long-lasting Bethesda creamery. Banana fritters, candied ginger and raisin bread pudding, vanilla and honey creme brulee, and a warm chocolate souffle cake are other sweet suggestions.

The wine list offers a fine, albeit somewhat expensive, collection of international wines, with several well-priced wines by the glass. In keeping with current drinking trends, Bistro Asiatique has an extensive list of martinis, including mango and lychee, and a saketini. The bar scene, especially on weekends, is a lively one.

Bistro Asiatique ought to be a winner, and with just a bit more attention to his vision, Mr. Friedman could make it so. With just a little less sugar, a little more heat, his dishes would sing a merry tune.

RESTAURANT: Bistro Asiatique, 4936 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda; 301/718-3400

HOURS: Dinner only, 5:30 to 10 p.m. daily

PRICES: Starters, $10 to $13; main courses, $18 to $29; desserts, $8

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street and $5 valet parking; public lot nearby

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Bethesda

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