Restaurant Review: Bistro Vivant

Bistro Vivant brings a taste of Provence to McLean.

Some of my fondest memories of French country cooking recall visits to sleepy towns in Provence, my ideal destination for relaxed, sophisticated bistro dining. Vacation plans this summer didn’t take me down those celebrated, tree-lined roads, but I found a place in McLean that whisked me away for a comparable experience. And I wasn’t the only one who felt the aura that first night.

“It has that vibe, its own personality,” says my guest, a well-traveled food professional, as we settle into a corner table at Bistro Vivant, a casual and very French neighborhood café in the Langley Shopping Center. Minutes later, her requested Ricard cocktail arrives, exactly as she prefers it, with the anise-based liqueur neat in a tall glass, accompanied by a carafe of water and a glass of ice.

“It’s so rare in this country to see it served correctly,” she says, taking great pleasure in mixing her drink her way. “I’m coming back here,” she announces, even before we sample our first bite of appetizers.  

So will I. The Vivant team has most of the details down.

Restaurateurs Aykan Demiroglu and Domenico Cornacchia opened the place in May 2012 and, in February, hired Ed Hardy as chef de cuisine. A Richmond native, Hardy is a 2007 graduate of the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan and brings sous chef experience from New York hot spots Aquavit (where he worked under chef Marcus Samuelsson) and The Modern and MoMA cafés, led by chef Michael Romano for the Union Square Hospitality Group.

Hardy replaces Driss Zahidi, who left to open his own place, Le Mediterranean Bistro, in Fairfax City.

At Vivant, walls of glass frame the unfussy, 70-seat dining room, where dark wood trim lends warmth and a clever curtain panel of voile hides the view of the parking lot. A chalkboard wall near the back lists daily and weekly specials.

Need a wine recommendation? The friendly servers are familiar with the all-Gallic list, which features many boutique producers. Some are quite pricy, although regular customers know that bottles priced over $50—such as a pedigreed Mongeard-Mugneret Echezeaux Grand Cru Burgundy, regularly offered at $120—are half-price on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights.

For appetizers, I recommend the shareable, Alsatian-style flatbread, strewn with bits of red onion and bacon. The crunchy tart pairs well with the house-made charcuterie board, a selection of chicken and pork patés and cured meats circling a classic, creamy celery-root remoulade.

I’m a salad man and also appreciate the chef’s farm-fresh plate of tender butter and red leaf lettuces, tumbled with herbs, sprouts and a tarragon/chervil vinaigrette.

The kitchen receives fresh seafood shipments twice weekly from Europe. That’s why the starter of octopus is so very tender, with the dewy tentacles joined beautifully with charred pork belly and a counterpoint of zippy, chili-infused sauce. I could make a meal of the pretty roasted-beet-and-ricotta salad, which is garlanded with paper-thin asparagus shavings. Alongside, I’ll take an order of the crisp and full-flavored duck-fat french fries. Perfect.

Did I mention that I adore the airy and chewy rustic bread served here? As it turns out, the baguette is made by wholesaler Panorama Baking Co. in Alexandria. And here’s an unexpected opportunity: Call a day in advance and you can drop by Vivant and take a loaf home. Great bread comes with a price, though; the plump baguette is $22.

Not everything is faultless. One evening, some nice enough steamed mussels came to the table in a pond of over-salted cream sauce. I was also disappointed by an entrée of undercooked duck breast, carved in thick slabs and positioned atop a risotto with the texture of bad rice pudding.

The worst offender was a heavy, greasy lamb stew—more of a soup—with the unmistakable aroma and strong barnyard flavor of mutton. And on the service end, attendants reset the table with knife, fork and bread plate in switched positions on two occasions, a rare faux-pas in the restaurant world.

Chef Hardy prepares an appealing and moist pan-roasted Amish chicken with herbed spaetzle, bacon and pearl onions—a simple dish with big rewards. If it’s beef you desire, have the succulent hanger steak, a fine strip, cooked to order. (I prefer its rich, curry-laced herb sauce on the side.)

But my top honors go to the rabbit Provencale, a lovely plate of tender white meat on the bone, simmered with chunks of tomato and black olives, then topped with tawny quenelles of fried polenta. I savored every bite.

Save room for a dessert of sour Morello cherries, topped with a scoop of vanilla gelato. Each spoonful reminds me of the village of St.-Remy and its roadside stands, where farmers sell the juicy crimson fruits. Welcome to Provence.

Bistro Vivant

1394 Chain Bridge Road, McLean, (Langley Shopping Center)

Lunch: Daily, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4 to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9:30 p.m.

Lunch: appetizers $8 to $15; entrées $11 to $27
Dinner: appetizers $8 to $15; entrées $18 to $27


European-style cocktails and an exclusively French wine list featuring many small producers, plus a separate reserve list of well-regarded vintages in the upper brackets. Twenty-five wines are available by the bottle, carafe, half-carafe and glass. Note: Wines priced over $50 are half-price on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings.

Plenty of space in the large strip-mall lot

Categories: Food & Drink