During my youthful college days as a Spanish major, I was seriously contemplating running off to Cuba or Nicaragua to spend time perfecting my Spanish and realizing some kind of Socialist mission that filled my sense of idealism. Knowing that my parents would balk and send an intervention team (aka my siblings), I toned this thought down and ended up in Spain. In my mid-teens and as a boarder in a British high school, my classmates and I would go on field trips to London to visit the British Museum and the Tate Gallery, and invariably I would end up giving mini tours to my mates explaining the elusive messages hidden within the Modern Masters, albeit off the mark most of the time – again, my sense of reaching to the masses and breaking down the barriers between high art and the common man is evident here. As an adult, I bring this same sensibility in my approach and search for French cuisine, which I find can be quite inaccessible both gastronomically and financially.
Ever since my discovery of a quaint and irresistible French bistro, Yves’ Bistro (see blog), in the Alexandria, Va area, I have been keeping my eyes, and most surely my appetite, ready and wide open in finding another establishment that is worth visiting and writing about, accessible to the average person on many levels. Recently, another online offer popped up which urged me to stop in at a new restaurant in the suburb of Kensington, MD.
K Town Bistro is located along the local commuter train tracks, nestled among a bunch of antique shops that appear to have aged nearly as much as the merchandise displayed in the storefront windows. It is rather easy to bypass it without noticing its presence due to its understated facade and the lack of foot traffic in this quiet part of historic Kensington. Such quietude only adds to the charm of the area, thus setting up a proper mind frame for a more relaxed and refined meal, as if one were to be transported to a small quaint town on the Continent where time and activity have slowed down by quite a few notches. A bubbling brook instead of the railroad tracks would have framed the mood and ambience for this gastronomic experience as purely idyllic.
The restaurant has been opened for just over a year and on my first visit, it was rather busy on a Thursday evening, which was a good sign for what was going to come. According to the website, the owner had worked for around 20 years at the famed Watergate Hotel, and the chefs had done their stints at high-end restaurants in the area before leaving for further training in France. With this information in mind and looking at the filled tables, a sense of anticipation started to creep in me, along with a fairly ravenous appetite and a stomach that was speaking its noisy familiar language.
To start the meal off, I chose the Lobster Bisque, a classic soup which is a good indicator of the kitchen’s skill level. The soup here is made with sherry and cream, and it arrived in a bowl that was dainty and elegant enough to showcase its luxuriousness. The broth was packed with the rich crustacean stock, not overly rich by the cream, a slight boozy note from the sherry, and it had some depth from the use of aromatics, the slightly bitter tamale (head matter), and some proper cooking. It arrived piping hot, as how I like my soups, with some garlic croutons that provided the flavor and textural contrast. I could not get enough of this satisfactory slurp, and pieces of french bread were used to wipe up every drop in the bowl – it was bowl licking good! On the second visit, a companion’s order of the day’s special, Lentil Soup, was equally delectable. The soup was rich and creamy, even without the use of diary, as a result of the use of aromatics that added rich flavor and body to these simple legumes. Instead of a chunky version, it came in a pureed form which further added to the rich silkiness. With these couple of bowls, we already notice the kitchen’s knowledge and skill in their set of first offerings.
A couple of salads were the next course. On one visit, I ordered the House Salad. It was quite peppery from a combination of field greens and a hefty amount of arugula leaves, balanced by perfectly ripened rich bits of avocado, sweet pungent red onions, slightly tart creamy chevre cheese, sweet and tart tomatoes, all disparate elements perfectly dressed by a slightly sweet and light coating of a proper vinaigrette. Simple but sumptuous. A Beet Salad was the order on another visit. Cubes of sweet yellow beets are paired with equally sweet but more mineral-tasting red beets, topped with slightly sweet fried parsnip shavings coupling up with candied pecans to provide the textural and flavor contrast to the soft beet cubes. The tangy vinaigrette and nuggets of chevre cheese added some level of acidity to the dish thus avoiding any cloying sweet effect. This was truly a vegetable delight worth calling a respectable vegetarian entrée.
On my first visit, an offering of Cod and Crab Cake was my main course. The piece of cod was amazingly fresh with no hint of ammonia, which cod tends to accumulate quickly. It was cooked perfectly judging by the moist large flakes of flesh and the slightly golden exterior with the hint of buttery richness. Perching on top of the fillet is a small crab cake that was decent with large lump meat barely held together by a binder. The seafood was accompanied by a wonderful Bernaise sauce perfumed by tarragon that added the slight anise flavor thus lightening the butter base sauce – despite its richness, I was lapping up every drop of it. The sides of mashed potato and greens were quite good but perfunctory in comparison to the staring ingredients.
The restaurant offers a Prix-Fixe Lunch Menu which consists of 2 courses for $16. On one visit, my companion ordered Salmon Cakes. The fish rounds were made with fresh salmon flakes and studded with red and green pepper bits. As in French cuisine, equal emphasis is placed on the sauce, and the Red Pepper Coulis was the perfect slightly sweet partner to the mild salty cakes. The side of Spinach Fondue was decent, but the Roasted Potato wedges were quite heavenly with the golden crispy exterior and the fluffy inside, making this starch bites very irresistible. This was a fulfilling and well-balanced lunch course.
For my lunch order, I decided to go out on a whim and order something not favored by many – Calf Liver. The pieces of organ meat were still tender from the proper cooking and not too bitter for being young of age. Nothing can remove the strong flavors of liver, but the shallot red wine sauce helped to make the liver more palatable and even quite tasty for this reviewer. The side of vegetables tasted fresh and well-balanced with pieces of sweet carrots, crispy haricot vert (French green beans), and sweet parsnips. The mash potato was decent but I prefer mine with lots of butter and cream, which this version could have done with more. However, this was indeed tasty and quite refined for a liver dish.
A French meal is not complete without savoring the dessert offering. For dinner, I forced my stuffed and sated stomach to make room for a couple of spoonfuls of the classic Creme Brulée. The custard was rich, thick, packed with real vanilla flavor (judging by the seeds), and the burnt sugar topping was perfectly executed. The dessert was doing a number on me at this stage but I had to pull in the reins and hold the horses as the custard came in a decent portion – the following day’s tasting of the leftovers was equally satisfying and I devoured it in a couple of minutes. For my second visit, the owner was kind enough to offer us a complementary trio of desserts – K Town Bistro Trio. It consists of the fore mentioned burnt custard, “banana split”, and dark chocolate mousse. Banana slices have been caramelized and they sit on a pool of rich and irresistible creme anglaise and berry sauce. The mousse was very rich with a slight bitter-sour aftertaste from the use of good dark chocolate. Verdict on this trio – C’est tres magnifique! Despite being stuffed from the savory dishes, we were diving into these sweet offerings like teenagers looking for a sugar high, and we were marvelling with each spoonful. When you visit, make sure to leave some room for this must-order.
K Town Bistro is a gem of French cuisine due to the skilful kitchen that offers wonderful classic dishes at a moderate price, which fulfils my criteria for good accessible French food. The charm of its location and the attentive wait staff add to the comfortable and satisfying dining experience. I see myself becoming a regular at this inviting restaurant, returning back for their delectable courses. I suspect you will do the same once you have paid it your first visit.