In decades past, at a time when Washington had few full-service restaurants open past midnight, visiting superstars such as the Rolling Stones and Leonard Bernstein gathered an entourage after a performance and made their way to the always lively Bistro Français on M Street. And when the city’s top toques closed their own kitchens for the night, they too headed to this traditional brasserie for a plate of calf’s liver with caramelized onions or fresh Dover sole.
“We were the only ones open. Now there are so many all over town,” says chef and owner Gerard Cabrol, who next year celebrates 40 years in business. “They all came.” Including Jean-Louis Palladin, the culinary genius who dazzled diners at his Jean-Louis at the Watergate: “He was here five night a week.” What’s more, the Old World decor of pressed tin, stained glass, dark wood and decorative ironwork at Bistro Français continues to transport diners to a Parisian boulevard.
That’s precisely where Cabrol started his career, as a 22-year-old cook in the kitchen of the posh Plaza Athénée hotel, just off the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. For two years he worked hard and gained attention for his skills. “Then one day a man comes up to me, a hotel guest,” he recalls with a smile. “He gave me a contract on the spot to come to Washington and cook at his restaurant for four times my salary at that time.”
The “man” was restaurateur Blaise Gherardi, owner of Rive Gauche. A luxurious and expensive hot spot for socialites and statesman, Rive Gauche was located on the southwest corner of Wisconsin and M Streets (now occupied by Banana Republic).
But, from early on, Cabrol had plans of his own. “My idea was a rotisserie chicken restaurant,” he says, explaining that self-basted birds were then a rarity. In June of 1975, he signed leases for two adjoining buildings in the 3100 block of M Street. One was the former home of Baers, a drug and sundry shop, and the other a music club, the Silver Dollar. Nearly four decades later, his menu still offers juicy, herb-marinated, spit-roasted chicken.
Far fewer stars and chefs come these days for an after-hours meal. “Business is not what it used to be,” he says. But this 66-year-old avid runner is still cooking up customer favorites, such as his classic Chicken Cordon Bleu.
What’s Cooking, Neighbor? visits with wine, food and entertaining professionals who work in the Georgetown area. Georgetowner dining columnist Walter Nicholls is the food critic for Arlington Magazine and a former staff writer for The Washington Post Food section.
Chicken Cordon Bleu
4 6-ounce chicken breasts
4 ounces sliced Swiss cheese
4 ounces sliced ham
2 eggs, beaten with 2 tablespoons of water
1/2 cup sifted flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
2 cups fine white breadcrumbs
3 ounces olive oil
2 ounces butter
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Place each breast between two sheets of plastic wrap. Using a meat mallet, pound out to a 1/4 inch thickness. Season both sides of the breasts with salt and pepper. Place on a work surface with the inner sides up. Using dinner plates, set up a breading station, with one plate for the seasoned flour, another for the beaten eggs and the last for the breadcrumbs. Divide the cheese and ham evenly among the four breasts and fold in half to form a flat package, making sure that all ingredients are enclosed. Carefully roll each breast in the flour, shaking off the excess, then in the egg wash and finally in the breadcrumbs. Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed skillet or fry pan over moderately high heat. Cook the chicken packages for approximately four minutes on each side until golden brown, adding the butter at a reduced temperature and basting until the cheese melts and bubbles. Serve hot, sprinkled with the chopped parsley.
Bistro Français, 3124 M St., NW