(For the Jan 22, 2012 Minibite, click here.)
Out of the many times I’ve visited Et Voila! in the past, two things really stuck out on my most recent visit:
1) Claudio Pirollo is not merely Belgian; he’s also half Italian – there are numerous Italian influences on this menu.
2) Et Voila! is greatly missing the departure three years ago of co-founder Mickael Cornu, the co-owner/pasty chef.
I began my meal with that rare beer which makes me want to find where to buy it at retail, that refreshing beauty with slightly more malt than hops, and an ABV in the 5-6% range – an amber, medium-bodied, session beer (at least in terms of today’s definitions) that is quenching and perfect for a hot day. A bottle of Palm ($7) isn’t going to win any awards, but it’s what *I* want to drink on a regular basis, and I would love to find out who’s distributing it in this area. I want Palm as my “house” beer.
But Chef Pirollo’s cooking deserves wine, not beer, and so I got a bottle of 2014 Château Montaut Rosé ($28), a Côtes de Provence from the town of Pierrefeu du Var, in the Department of the Var (Cedric Maupillier’s boyhood department in distal Southeast France – Cedric is currently the Chef de Cuisine at Mintwood). This wine is less than a year off-vine, and was so new that even though it was an extremely pale, very dry Rosé, it maintained an almost sticky-fresh bouquet of fruits, and needless to say, went perfectly with both of my first courses.
I was brought a small bucket with four pieces of sliced bread which I very much doubt was made in-house. It seemed par-baked and frozen (you know “that” texture that these breads have – a bit firmer towards the crust, a slightly “off” flavor and texture, and never really perfect anywhere in the slice. Well, I’m used to it in these parts, so it doesn’t bother me, but when you have an in-house pastry chef (I actually hadn’t yet realized that Mickael Cornu was no longer at the restaurant), this is not something that you want to see. The butter was in a nearly frozen rectangle (ice-cold butter doesn’t bother me in the least, and I just don’t understand why it bothers some people – break off a little piece of bread, cut off a little piece of butter, put it on the bread with your knife, and there you go. You don’t need to butter the entire piece at the same time, and I’m not sure why people think you do – I rather like the contrast in textures and temperatures with warm bread and cold butter.)
At this point, it is extremely rare when I see a European dish on a menu that I’ve never had before (in Asian restaurants, this still happens fairly often). But I believe that I’d never before had, and quite possibly have never before seen, or even heard of, Tartare de Truite ($13.50 – the online menu’s prices are out-of-date), Trout Tartare (!), with some blots of black-olive tapenade, a beautiful rectangle of tomato gelée atop the loaf of tartare, and some leaves of mâche as garnish (which they call a “Mache Salad” on the menu, but it’s not). What a great dish this was, both in presentation, freshness, and flavor – this dish alone is enough to earn something close to permanent respect for Chef Pirollo, and I urge curious diners to go here and try this. My server told me this is a river trout from Virginia, and that makes sense because although it was cut into small pieces, and appropriately dressed, it tasted like it was just pulled from the water. I’m pretty sure this was a first for me. Bravo, Chef.
For my main course, Rockfish Filet ($27.50), a thinly sliced, skin-on, slice of pan-seared wild rockfish that had me, upon first glance, dubiously asking my server if he was sure this was rockfish. Well, it was, and it was absolutely delicious – the truth is: I hadn’t had well-prepared, wild rockfish in awhile, and I’m not used to seeing it look this beautiful. The skin was perfectly crisped, and the meat underneath was moist, tender, and just wonderful. It was served atop a slightly too-hot Caponatta (a Sicilian version of Ratatouille, although I’m uncertain this was a traditional recipe (it was covered by the fish, and hard to dissect; plus I was enjoying my dish so much that I didn’t want to)), three rectangles of Barbajuan, which is essentially “fried ravioli,” these being stuffed with a trivial amount of ricotta, the entire dish with a small amount of Caponatta jus as a base (not poured on top). Yes, this was somewhat expensive for a relatively small piece of rockfish, but the quality was extremely high, and this dish was worth every penny. Again, I emphasize that both of these courses went beautifully with my $28 bottle of Rosé, of which I drank half, and took the rest home – you’ll be doing well here if you do the same thing with this wine – it’s less expensive by the bottle, and you don’t need to finish the entire thing at the restaurant. Note also the Italian overtones in this dish with the Caponatta and Barbajuan – almost everyone assumes that Et Voila is a Belgian restaurant, but it’s more of a Belgian-Italian hybrid, and that is to its advantage, giving its cuisine a richer depth of flavors and giving the chef a larger palette to work with.
I wish I could say my dinner – wonderful up until this point – had a happy ending, but the Profiteroles Choux Pastry Balls ($9) that I’ve had, and raved about, several times in the past here, were shockingly disappointing, and it was at this point in the meal when I knew that Mickael Cornu was no longer at the restaurant. At one point during the dessert course, I mustered the courage to asked my server, “When did the pastry chef leave here?”, not even knowing for sure that he did. “Oh, you mean Mike, the co-owner?” he replied. “Yes,” I said. “About three years ago,” he told me, and sure enough, when I got home that evening. I’ve certainly been here at least once in the past three years, but this was just glaring. The choux were very good – good enough where they could have been made in-house, but other than that? This was nothing I couldn’t have made myself at home, and I say that with deep lamentation in my voice, because even though Profiteroles is a dessert that kids in France can find in bowling alleys (seriously), here, they were a thing of wonderment – with this astounding, dark, chocolate sauce (not syrup; sauce) atop the little French ice-cream sandwiches. The ice cream in this rendition was freezing cold, overly dense, and smelled like Häagen-Dazs, but *not* the Häagen-Dazs of old; the industrialized, sell-out Häagen-Dazs of today which is no better than numerous store-bought ice creams you can find at your local 7-11. This was not good ice cream, and the chocolate syrup (not sauce; syrup) tasted like something that came out of a plastic squirt bottle. Make no mistake, this wasn’t a “bad” Profiteroles; it just wasn’t “the best Profiteroles you could possibly hope to find in the entire Washington, DC area,” which is something that Et Voila could have claimed for many years. Surprisingly, their menu boasts a Pastry Chef: the ironically named Alex Malaise (I apologize, Chef Malaise, that was a super-cheap low blow – for all I know you’re on vacation, and this has absolutely nothing to do with you (and that would also explain the bread, which could have been made in advance and frozen), but please be aware that I noticed in a big way, and I didn’t even realize that any changes had been made).
Before I received my rockfish, I asked if I could get a couple carryout items for lunch the next day – things that would keep well overnight – and I specifically said not to worry about presentation. So I ordered a Salade de Betteraves Rouges ($10.50) which came with two or three types of chopped, bite-sized, heirloom red beets, caramelized pear (which was either not included, or was such an afterthought that I might have mistaken it for a beet cube), toasted pecan nuts (which I didn’t notice were there until I read the menu afterwards, and sure enough, I found a tiny one), and goat cheese gelée which were lovely, small cubes of feather-light, pillow-like goat cheese that had an almost gnocchi-like texture. It came with a plastic tub of a dark, reddish-brown, thickened, vinegar based dressing, and (forgetting the presentation) was just too expensive for what I got – had I ordered it in-house and received the standard presentation, I would probably think differently. And I also think that it isn’t fair for a diner in a restaurant, in this situation, to be overly critical when ordering carryout – it’s not what the staff is trained to do, and they essentially did me a favor by making it.
Also for carryout, a Pâté de Campagne ($9.95) which is always good at Et Voila. Enrobed with a strip of charcuterie that I want to say is caul fat, but it’s not – it’s more like a fatty strip of meat without any webbing. This is a good, clearly house-made pâté, laced with pistachios, and served with all the trimmings: cornichons, pickled cauliflower, a small green salad, and a slice of grilled bread to go along with the standard bread-basket slices. This came with the exact same dressing that the beet salad came with, and I’m not the biggest fan – it’s a bit overpowering on the vinegar end of the spectrum. This isn’t a pâté that you’ll remember for very long after the meal is over, but it’s always reliable here, if not exciting. If you like Pâté de Campagne, you won’t go wrong in ordering this.
ETA – Oh, wow, I just read my Jan 22, 2012 Minibite (see the top link), and I mentioned the bread there, too. So this wasn’t the first time I noticed – I didn’t realize this until just this moment.