Èlan and energy
Though much is taken, much abides, as old Al Tennyson says. For almost as long as Ulysses was marooned, the space on the northeastern corner of O and 14th streets was Julie Virga’s eponymous Virga’s. Then it became Gaylord, an Indian restaurant. Having scaffolding around the two-story mixed-use structure while its exterior and interior was renovated didn’t exactly boom business, and Gaylord based into the sad netherworld of vanished restaurants.
Partners Rich Macias and Simon’s co-owner Alan Chan revive the space with Bistro Michel, homage—albeit so far without mussels—to Brussels, whose patron saint is not Manneken Pis but St. Michael.
Rich brown wainscoting and dark upholstery contrast smartly with the cream-colored walls. The long L of wainscoting-to-ceiling mirrors are intact, making the 24-seat main dining room feel more expansive than it is. The solarium facing O Street is now a coffee joint/cafe, which must have seemed a sound business decision given the volume of state buildings nearby and the spate of places to score a quick latte, sandwich or pastry to go. Brand’s International Coffee and Bakery across O Street might be cutting into their action some, however.
Michel’s menu is proscribed but growing on each visit, as are the number of patrons and the crispiness of the pommes frites. All are positive developments. As is the switch from cornichons to sweet gherkins as plate adornments.
On the first go-around, Macias’ recommendation—given without hesitation—is taken: lamb sliders. It’s almost impossible to be served sliders of any stripe without thinking the chef put a hamburger under the beam of that laser deal in Fantastic Voyage. In the instant case, the choice of lamb adds an array of flavors not present in anything offered by White Castle, the grandpappy of all fast-food chains, whose diminutive 5-cent burgers bore the same name and are generally credited with creating the term.
White Castle’s sliders are not enhanced with marinated cherry on top, garlic aioli and red onion, as are those at Michel. The only beef is not enough aioli and onion. Perhaps it’s the methode française, which often, particularly on salads like a Lyonnaise, merely dots some mustard on the bottom of the plate and lets the combination of ingredients speak for themselves, rather than be drowned in a torrent of oil and vinegar. Given the willing accommodation of the ubiquitous Macias and the gracious and knowledgeable waitress Leigh, if a request was made for more of each, it would have been rapidly granted.
While small in overall size, the slider patties are wide of girth. The recently added egg-salad sandwich—a mix of half pickled eggs, half not—could benefit from a wider stratum between the toasted slices of Grateful Bread’s Great White.
Similarly thin is Michel’s roast-beef sandwich, although the balance between beef, arugula and horseradish is fairly magnifique as is. Walking in to the speakers playing the bubbly Stéphane Grappelli and the brooding Django Reinhardt is an instant hook, but the closer is salad rouge: a circle of beets on a bed of watercress and arugula. Light although a pinch salty is the croque marquis, the classic open-face ham, Gruyère, spinach combo wearing an egg chapeau.
Dinner is more varied. Some lunch items remain at the same prices like the quiche du jour, one of which is usually vegetarian. Also intriguing is the Vegetable Wellington, a dinner item that might diversify the meat-heavy lunch menu. There’s oodles of dinner side dishes, such as bacon-braised chicory and brandied Brussels sprouts.
A cautionary note: Tasting Belgian ales is a palate pleaser but wallet emptier. The ciderish Bacchus is $12—$3 more than the roast-beef sandwich—and not even Chimay tall boy proportioned.
One visit, Macias’ mom, who is sitting on the patio relaxing, has made brownies. Two are offered as a free dessert. A woman at a neighboring table gets a cherry-festooned crème brûlée on the house for her birthday.
Michel is evolving, but there’s lots of élan and energy both in the kitchen and out front. Bon travail!