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French cuisine isn’t as much a national standard as an amalgam of regional specialties crowded under an umbrella of Gallic diversity. Perhaps none of those culinary traditions is as distinctive and noteworthy as that of Languedoc.
Located in southwestern France, the region has long retained its individual standing in the nation’s identity, even retaining a second language. Meanwhile, Languedoc continues to adapt the tastes of bordering regions, and nearby Spain, and emphasizes its closeness to the sea with an abundance of fish.
Chef Bernard Grenier, a Languedoc native, after more than twenty years at La Miche in Bethesda, opened the 100-seat Bistro d’Oc last year. The inviting downtown space, formerly housing the Star Saloon and Mike Baker’s 10th Street Grill, is awash in burnt orange walls and pressed-tin ceilings.
A small bar area in the front practically begs you to sit and have an apÃ©ritif, and don’t be surprised if you hear the mournful strains of Edith Piaf singing in the background. Winter is a wonderful time for soups and Bistro d’Oc has a pair that warm you while reminding you that even simple things can be a joy. A traditional onion soup gratinÃ©e bursts with flavor and is off the charts with melted cheese. Even better is cream of corn chowder with morsels of crabmeat and accented with bacon.
This being the cooking of France one must expect a bit of offal, or “variety meats” as they are more delicately known. Pig’s feet are put to excellent use to produce crepinette, a fabulous flattened sausage cooked in duck fat served atop fleshy grilled portobellos. Crab “cigars,” pieces of crab rolled in crispy wrappers, are accompanied by cool, grated green papaya and a mild dipping sauce. Â
Languedoc is the birthplace of cassoulet, that wonderfully hearty dish of white beans and assorted meats that takes days to cook when done right. Happily it is here, incorporating duck confit, pork, Toulouse sausage and lamb, all simmered together for hours to harmonize the flavors. A gourmand friend first acquainted me years ago with the labor-intensive effort involved in producing a fine cassoulet, and even he would have to agree that this one solidly hits the mark.
Veal Languedoc braised in tomatoes, olives, citrus and herbs is disappointing only in that the meat is overly fatty. The skillful blend of flavors makes eating around the fat a happy chore.
Two other main dishes deserve praise. SautÃ©ed rare yellow fin tuna, crusted with sesame seeds and served at room temperature over a bed of mesclun greens, with lime-honey vinaigrette is memorable. Bistro d’Oc also turns out a superb grilled hanger steak of Waguy-Kobe beef with the requisite mound of pommes frites that you’ll remember for some time to come.
An impressive pre-theatre menu is available daily from 5:30 to 7 p.m. for $19.95, and with Ford’s Theatre just across the street and the Warner and National Theatre just blocks away, this is one of the most convenient and economical deals in town.
Desserts are a bit uneven. I was lured by the menu listing of peach bread pudding but wasn’t prepared for the canned peach half in a cake-like batter baked in a ramekin. Far better are the petits pots of crÃ¨me caramel — one of orange confit and another of wild cherries in armagnac. House-made raspberry and mango sorbets are exquisite, as are poached figs with Muscat wine.
Rounding out the experience at Bistro d’Oc is a small but impressive list of wines, primarily from Languedoc. Here too, like so many other regional wines of France, they nearly always perfectly compliment the region’s dishes.
There are finer restaurants in this city to be sure. But for a well-priced culinary journey through a too-often neglected region of France, you’ll do no better than Bistro d’Oc.