Go Ahead, Allow Yourself to Get Pampered at La Bergerie

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In the summer of 1988, my life changed.  Calling to inquire about a Belle Haven townhouse, a McEnearney realtor and grande dame of Old Town, Beverly Gore, agreed to give me a walk-through.   

Two days later, she invited me for what was ostensibly the seal the deal lunch.  At 218 North Lee, I dashed past an understated brass plaque, etched La Bergerie, up four narrow stairs and into the Crilley Warehouse, making my way onto the elevator.  The entrance, tucked away on the second floor, led me to believe this was one of the best-kept secrets in town, and only those in the know were privy to its existence.  If it were not for Beverly, I felt I would have needed an Amy Vanderbilt letter of introduction to gain admittance.

Before me lay a perfectly appointed dining room of crystal chandeliers, huge arrangements of fresh flowers and French paintings juxtaposed against sheltering brick walls held together with century-old mortar made from oyster shells. 

Ensconced in a large chocolate-brown leather booth, Beverly and I sipped champagne cocktails and dined on scallop ceviche, cold lobster and a chocolate souffl doused with fresh cream.  I reveled in the extraordinary service, hypnotized by the sound and swagger of the sterling silver crumb-catcher being rolled across the table at course intervals.  Both my palate and perceptions forever altered.  So, while the place on Belle Haven did not become my home, La Bergerie did.

It is not so much how you feel about a restaurant, but how a restaurant makes you feel about yourself.  I have turned to it in times of celebration.  (It is the only suitable place in town to take your mother on Mothers Day if you really love her.)  I have also gone there when I needed an emotional boost to forget my troubles, just for a few hours.  Original owners, brothers Bernard and Jean Campagne-Ibarcq, named the restaurant after the protected area where a shepherd keeps his flock during a storm. 

Today, the person responsible for ensuring La Bergeries meaning still translates to its dining guests is restaurateur Laurent Janowsky, who purchased it in 2000.  From age 7 to 11, Laurent lived with his grandmother in Alsace, France, playing in her pots. 

La Bergerie is a partnership, he insists, with wife Margaret Ticer.  However, Laurent is the face of the establishment, hands-on in every operational aspect, including coordinating private parties. 

Once, I arrived early to find Laurent vacuuming.  The other evening, he prepared the Dover sole table side, artfully filleting the fish, tie flipped back over his shoulder, avoiding the blistering flames.  Intensely personable with a magnetizing European sophistication, he makes a point of talking to every guest, while also working as an equal alongside his waitstaff. 

At 8:30 p.m., the lights dimmed to set the mood.  A birthday celebration was underway to my left.  An anniversary to my right, and Laurent assisted with digital photographs of the happy couple.  Up front was a curly-haired little boy enjoying perhaps his first right of culinary passage alongside his parents.  As Laurent says, We were all kids once, and his special childrens two-course menu, nicely priced at $16, allows them to experience La Bergerie on their own terms.

Chef Vincent Dammans French culinary artistry was at its full force throughout the evening, beginning with a seared scallop and foie gras amuse bouche.  His first course included a Portobello mushroom stacked with crabmeat as well as a presentation of seared foie gras with Mission figs and port glace.  My party was so taken with these dishes that we debated whether or not to repeat them.

The main courses showcased La Bergeries exquisite table side preparation as we were treated to the most incredible Dover Sole Meunire followed by succulent pheasant stuffed with chicken mousse and truffles.  My perennial favorites the baked onion soup with Gruyere cheese, the classic Caesar salad and the beef tenderloin with Barnaise would wait for another visit.  But souffls were in abundance along with the Trio dessert that included a liquid-center chocolate cake, lemon mousse and cherries in crme frache, an ideal finish to share around the table.

Our delightful waiter, Carlos, an eight-year La Bergerie veteran, was thoughtful to inquire if we would like to take a break between courses.  He is well aware that I am a smoker, and I was able to slip just outside the entrance to a lovely antique bench and pedestal ashtray.  Laurent also offers select tables with a unique exhaust system, where smoking is permitted without assaulting the other guests.

So while La Bergerie is certainly not the new kid on the block, it is a classic, evoking the flavors, textures and culture of a distant time.  Whether it be a ladies lunch, a midweek casual dinner, a party to raise voices in jubilation or a quiet afternoon location to discuss business or rendezvous with a lover, La Bergerie is that private enclave, a perfect pearl, to which all other restaurants should be compared.  So I give you, by way of this letter of introduction, La Bergerie.

La Bergerie serves lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday; dinner is served 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. on Sundays.  Prix fixe menus are available for lunch and dinner.  Visit labergerie.com for online reservations, menus, special events, private party information or to join the mailing list.  For reservations by phone, call (703) 683-1007.

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