July 29, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Bearnaise Evolves With the Neighborhood

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Duck leg confit with frites is a popular menu item at Bearnaise restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Back when he was the driving force behind only two budding hospitality concepts, Capitol Hill restaurateur Spike Mendelsohn looked around his slice of Southeast D.C. and figured the place could use some razzle-dazzle.

His solution: share a taste of his youth by transporting locals to a Parisian-style steak frites joint.

Voila, Béarnaise (315 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) — a paean to prix-fixe dining replete with continental touchstones such as seared foie gras, pan-fried frog legs and garlicky escargots.

Nine months later, Béarnaise is still gradually, but most assuredly, growing into its own.

There’s been no major shake-up among the leadership; Mendelsohn and veteran toque Brad Race remain firmly in control of the kitchen, while Mendelsohn’s sister and business partner, Micheline, tends to the crew at the front of the house. Custom cocktails keep materializing — there are now eight signature pours, up from the half-dozen that greeted guests on opening day — and the discount wines flow (well-curated $10 by-the-glass and value — $40 per bottle — selections), all of which makes unwinding after work with a relaxing drink affordable for nearly every budget.

Change, however, has swept across the main menu. And just about everyone seems pleased by the recent developments.

Bigger Is (Mostly) Better

According to Mendelsohn aide Jordyn Lazar, widening the scope beyond steak frites was all about keeping up with consumer demand.

“When the restaurant first opened, they featured specials like duck confit, chicken paillard and chicken liver pate. Since we’re a neighborhood spot, customers were coming in frequently and asking for those items over and over again,” Lazar said of the now-standard favorites.

Although the prix-fixe section has its admirers, other key performers — including the aforementioned paillard, a generously proportioned pork chop and well-dressed “brasserie” burger — have been promoted to featured players. Meanwhile, former anchors (farewell, locally sourced oysters) have been shelved in favor of more exotic tastes (bonjour, globe-spanning moules).

The steamed mussels, in particular, have made quite a splash.

The quartet of mouthwatering renditions (think: herby marinere, zesty Provencal, boozy Dijon and citrus-spiked curry) pulls double duty as shareable starters or self-indulgent mains.

A bowl enveloped by the scent of vermouth revealed plump specimens inundated with whole-grain-mustard-spiked cream sauce and festooned with ho-hum fried onion straws. The over-breaded vegetable was no match for the surprise waiting below — bits of lusty bacon that punctuated the surrounding liquid with peppery goodness.

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