Restaurant Review: Pirouette
Jackie and Philippe Loustaunau stage a beguiling pas de deux at their Ballston café and wine shop.
Sitting down on my first visit to Pirouette Café & Wine Shop, the number eight catches my eye. It’s the price of the first item on the wine list, a glass of Chateau Ducasse Bordeaux blanc.
Eight dollars? When is the last time I saw a glass of wine in a restaurant in the single digits?
As it turns out, the highest-priced wines by the glass are a mere $12—for which you can enjoy a Loire Valley sparkling rosé (Chanteleuserie Touraine Fines Bulles) or a Petit Manseng from Virginia’s Early Mountain vineyard. A bottle of Domaine Bzikot 2020 Puligny-Montrachet is a very reasonable $58.
Stopping by the table, my server explains that guests may also choose any of the 240-plus bottles in Pirouette’s adjoining wine shop, to enjoy on site with no corkage fee or markup. I go for the Chateau Ducasse, whose blend of Semillon and sauvignon blanc grapes proves a worthy foil for plump Long Island oysters broiled with basil butter, and an order of hush puppies topped with crab salad and lemony jalapeno remoulade.
Owners Philippe and Jackie Loustaunau opened their Ballston café in mid-September and they’re off to a winning start. The couple—he’s 64, she’s 48—met in 2006 because their daughters from previous marriages (both 12 at the time) were friends.
“[Manon and Jasmine] hatched a plan to get us together and pinkie swore that it would be OK if it didn’t work out between us,” Jackie says, laughing.
It did work out. They married in 2008, dreaming of one day opening a business that captured their mutual passion for food and wine. Jackie had worked in restaurants over the years, and later, for Fresh Impact Farms, a hydroponic farm on Langston Boulevard. Philippe, a native of Limoges, France, recently closed a technology consulting firm he started in 2008.
“Wine and the culture of food were always a part of my life in France,” he says. “Jackie and I are well connected with the local French community. A lot of [those friends] are in the food and wine business. We know winemakers and carry their wines.”
Early in the planning stages, they vacillated between opening a wine shop and a restaurant. The pandemic is what ultimately gave rise to the hybrid concept. “Restaurants were suffering, but retail wine stores did very well,” Philippe observes. Creating a place where guests could eat and leave with a bottle of wine, or come to buy wine and discover the restaurant, was a symbiosis that made sense financially.
The 3,400-square-foot space on the ground floor of Ballston’s J Sol apartments proved an ideal location, blessed with natural light, large windows and a spacious patio. It’s near the Virginia Square condo where the Loustaunaus live with their 12-year-old son, Nicola.
Designed by D.C.-based //3877, the interior has a modern industrial vibe with concrete floors, walls and beams (and the din that comes with them), exposed ductwork, an open kitchen and tall metal shelves with wooden planters. Jelly jars of carnations adorn tables tucked between gold- and chocolate-hued pleather banquettes.
The dining room seats 66, including a 16-seat tasting table that marks the transition from café to wine shop. Above it hangs a stunning acrylic mobile by Atlanta artist Przemyslaw Kordys (aka “PK”).
Charleston, South Carolina, native Adam Hoffa, 29, whose local résumé includes stints at D.C.’s Fiola and St. Anselm restaurants, is the chef overseeing an abbreviated menu of eight appetizers, four entrées and two desserts.
Hoffa sidesteps a pet peeve of mine—badly dressed salads—by making sure to coat every leaf, and all of his salads shine. In one instance, a perky dressing of creme fraiche and dill enlivens a medley of broccoli florets, pickled red peppers and French breakfast radishes. Another artful assembly finds red endive leaves, tossed in orange zest and Dijon mustard vinaigrette, arranged like flower petals on top of house-made ricotta cheese and finished with focaccia croutons.
The chef cooks with seasonal ingredients, including produce from Earth N Eats Farm in Pennsylvania, so the menu changes frequently. (Before this review went to press, the toppings on the ricotta salad had already shifted to red kale, roasted pumpkin and pecans with a red-wine vinaigrette.)
If salads aren’t your thing, the fried macaroni-and-cheese croquettes, made with cheddar and smoked Gouda and served with zesty roasted-pepper jelly, may well be. The ratio of flour to cornmeal in the aforementioned hush puppies seems off, making the orbs rather cakelike and springy, when they should be fluffy and light.
An entrée of seared sea scallops with corn purée and little piles of cherry-tomato-and-charred-corn relish is a delightful ode to the last gasps of summer, but it’s gone from the menu after my first visit. In its place, the chef offers a whole branzino for two, stuffed with a delicious (albeit a tad rubbery) scallop mousse and surrounded by cremini mushrooms, carrots and turnips in a rich shellfish jus.
Tagliolini—a narrower and more thinly rolled form of tagliatelle—is tossed with mussels (which Hoffa steams in the whey from his house-made ricotta), roasted tomatoes and garlic breadcrumbs, yielding a dish that is delightful in its flavor and restraint.
I’m a fan of the pork chop Milanese for two—a crispy, breaded, on-the-bone cutlet topped with roasted tomatoes and sharp provolone cheese, with a mound of bitter lettuce salad.
But that dish speaks to a larger issue with the mains on the menu: With only four offered at a time (some of which are designed for two people), the options are limited. At the time of my visit, the pork chop was the only meat entrée. Another was vegetarian. The main courses would benefit from more diversity.
The succinct offerings include two desserts. I can attest to Hoffa’s dreamy chocolate budino (pudding) made with Colombian milk chocolate and topped with smoked almonds, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt.
The appetizer cheese plate, paired with a nice wine, is also a wonderful way to end a meal. Mine features a wedge of triple-cream Pierre Robert cow’s milk cheese flanked by a salad of wild greens, fresh dill, sauteed mushrooms and fried garlic chips.
Pirouette is a family affair and I love that energy. Jackie and Philippe work the floor in the café and the wine shop and make a point of engaging with every customer. One evening, Jackie’s son Don served, while his half-brother, Nicola, bused tables, having come straight from soccer practice.
Still, it’s the wine component that makes Pirouette truly special. The Loustaunaus have curated a deeply personal list born of good taste and experience. Patrons will benefit by discovering labels not seen routinely on other wine lists around town, such as a Deovlet Pinot Noir 2019 from Santa Barbara ($47), Mélanie Pfister Pinot Gris Furd 2019 from Alsace ($34) and Mas d’Amile Terrasses du Larzac le Petitou 2020 from Languedoc-Roussillon ($20).
A warning, though, to those who are partial to big California reds or oaky chardonnays: “We are biased toward Central Coast California wines,” Philippe says. “Napa is just not our style.” Some 70% of Pirouette’s wines are Old World offerings. (So, mostly not Californian.)
In my view, the Loustaunaus have hit upon a formula that is the right thing in the right place at the right time.
“We are not trying for a liquor license. It’s not in our business model,” Jackie says. “No coffee, either. We are focusing on our core mission—beautiful food, beautiful wines and beautiful service. We don’t want to stray from that.”
They don’t need to. Their Pirouette is on point as is.
What to Drink
There are three beers, a cider and a few nonalcoholic beverages on Pirouette’s menu, but really it’s all about wine. The adjoining wine shop stocks about 240 wines, which doubles as a wine list of sorts, as diners may purchase any of them to drink at the table, with no markup or corkage fee. Prices per bottle range from $15 to $100, with most in the $40 range. Philippe estimates there are 80 to 90 reds, 40 to 50 sparkling and the rest are white. Roughly 70% are Old World and half are French.
The wine list at the table highlights various “wines to discover,” with three selections each of red, white and bubbly by the glass ($8 to $12) and six selections of each by the bottle, many of them modestly priced in the $20s. They also offer several half bottles, a rarity in restaurants these days.
4000 N. Fairfax Drive, Arlington
Tuesday to Thursday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 11:00 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Starters: $14 to $17
Entrées: $22 to $33 ($55 for pork chop Milanese for two; $46 for branzino for two)