Spike Mendelsohn freely admits he wasn’t entirely ready to move on his fledgling restaurant, Béarnaise (315 Pennsylvania Ave. SE), last year when he snatched up the prime real estate just behind his other well-trafficked properties.
But the restaurateur couldn’t pass up the chance to bring his career, and some of his most cherished dining memories, full circle with a steak frites place of his own.
Friends and family will get the chance to sample the fruits of Mendelsohn’s latest labors on Saturday and again June 24 during the soft opening. A Mendelsohn spokeswoman said the plan is to begin welcoming the general public, for both lunch and dinner, on June 28.
The Montreal-born Mendelsohn, who rocketed to stardom here in the states after appearing on season four of “Top Chef” (he returned to the ratings juggernaut for season eight, “Top Chef All-Stars,” and also co-stars in the reality TV brand’s latest spin-off, “Life After Top Chef”), said he and his sister/business partner, Micheline, grew up eating entrecote and crunchy spuds in their native Canada.
A classically trained chef, Mendelsohn fed his passion for French cooking by honing his craft at award-winning restaurants — Bouchon (Yountville, Calif.), Le Cirque (New York City), Les Crayeres (Reims, France) — the world over.
He changed gears along the way, planting his flagship Good Stuff Eatery here (303 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) in 2008; an Arlington, Va., location debuted in summer 2012, with Georgetown and Philadelphia outposts scheduled to follow. Meanwhile, his sophomore project, We, the Pizza (305 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) took root in 2010.
But it was back during his hectic days in the Le Cirque kitchen that Mendelsohn first crossed paths with Brad Race, Béarnaise’s executive chef. The duo bonded while tending to the titular sauce that’s reunited them all these years later.
According to Mendelsohn, the owners of the former Thai Roma space approached him in 2012 about taking over their soon-to-expire lease, an offer he simply couldn’t refuse.
“It’s not something we were 100 percent ready to do … but we loved the space and love the neighborhood,” he said of the gut reaction.
Of course, Mendelsohn had been looking to broaden his burgeoning hospitality empire beyond the current grab-and-go profile. And he knew Race was up to the challenge.
“The timing was just right to do something together … something more serious,” he said of the shift from fast-casual to more refined dining.
Mendelsohn said he and Race went back and forth about perhaps pursuing bistro or brasserie concepts, but they kept coming back to the notion of putting their own stamp on time-honored steak frites. So the chefs hightailed it to Paris to do some research, returning home with rounded bellies, craniums full of ideas and arms full of classic cutlery.
Though they hold a special place in his heart, Mendelsohn said the steak frites spots he grew up in could have used a bit of polish.
“All they ask you is what temperature you want,” Mendelsohn said of the no-frills joints he frequented as a kid.
He and his new executive chef (when last we saw Race, he was breaking food down to its most basic elements at the original minibar) are hoping to up the ante a bit.
First, they’ve made prix fixe dining the default option, carving out a multicourse program featuring fresh French baguettes, choice of soup or salad and a trio of signature cuts of beef.
The marquee proteins, an 8-ounce flat iron steak, 14-ounce rib eye and 8-ounce filet mignon, all provided by renowned meat merchant Pat LaFrieda, will set one back $28, $38 or $42 respectively. Each entree is privy to one of the house-made steak sauces, a roster that includes: signature béarnaise, spicy béarnaise, a modified au poivre (bolstered by ginger and green peppercorns), classic bordelaise (“a beautiful, shiny sauce,” Mendelsohn gushed) and a souped-up compound butter.
And every cut is accompanied by all-you-can-eat fries.
The endless spuds are distinctive, even if the dish — there are versions of steak frites served at neighboring Le Grenier (H Street Northeast) and Belga Café (Barracks Row), as well as at buzzy newcomer Le Diplomate (H Street Northwest), not to mention well-established steak houses (Charlie Palmer Steak, Capital Grille) galore — is less so.
But Race doesn’t feel like he’s competing with the others because, to many of them, steak frites is more gravy than bread and butter.
“We’re a steak frites restaurant. Period,” Race asserted.
Having seen his sales continue to grow even after opening side-by-side dining concepts, Mendelsohn is very much in the more-the-merrier camp. “We think there’s space for everybody here,” he said.
The beverage program is concise but well-curated, featuring a handful of artisan cocktails (including seasonally inspired house-made punch) and just under a dozen beers, both craft (DC Brau’s Corruption) and commercial (Miller Lite). There are a dozen mixed sparkling, white and red wines, mostly French, available by the glass ($10 a pop).
But most of the master list, spanning more than two dozen bottles, has been uniformly capped at $40 each.
“We want you to work your way through the wine list,” Mendelsohn said of the effort to take sticker shock out of the equation. That generosity of spirit translates into a world of sipping opportunities, be they youthful rosés (2012 Domaine Saint Eugenie Corbieres), festive sparklers (Bouvet Brut Signature) or venerable Bordeauxs (2005 Chateau Reysson Reserve).
Those looking to splurge are welcome to peruse a reserve list peppered with pricier pours ($55-$400).
Mendelsohn seems excited to have clients poke around his grown-up gastro-retreat, be they inclined to hang at the 12-seat bar and slurp local Rappahannock oysters, or camp out in the main dining room for a proper feast of pan-fried frog legs, garlicky escargots and sea-salt-spiked roasted bone marrow.
And he’s absolutely champing at the bit to trot out additional specials, floating the likes of lobster frites (grilled tails; heads reserved for lobster béarnaise seasoned with mirepoix), spiced mussels (curry, saffron), sweetbreads platters, pork chop selection and prime rib night as potential offerings.
According to Mendelsohn, Capitol Hill is a “magical” place to launch new restaurants.
He calculated that the undying support he’s received from the indigenous and professional community, coupled with the national attention he’s received — it never hurts to have the first family pop by on a regular basis — have proved invaluable.
“This is the perfect place to open up a first location. And, hopefully, you’ll see Béarnaises popping up elsewhere in the future,” he said, listing Georgetown and Alexandria, Va., as prospective landing pads.
Not that he’s done consolidating his power base here in the shadow of the Capitol.
“There are a couple more spaces on the block that we’ve been looking at,” he hinted. “It’s not full up yet.”