How the owner of Bistro L’Hermitage built, scavenged and saved for his piece of Woodbridge.
By Stefanie Gans / Photos by Kate Bohler
Two tender scallops stand up to the searing heat of harissa, a North African hot sauce, balanced by golden raisins, capers and an apricot glaze. The result sparks in a maze of directions, keeping your brain on high alert for where the next blast of flavor will hit.
The room whispers with white tablecloths and subtle service.
It took owner Youssef Eagle Essakl five years to turn a rundown Chinese spot (“we gutted [it] to the bone”) into his French restaurant.
It can be a little kitschy, with a moustached statue greeting customers at the door to the roosters sharing table space with salt and pepper shakers, but there’s glamour, too, in $200-a-plate china.
“I have women come from Bethesda, chichi women.” says Essakl, of the dishware at his five-year-old restaurant Bistro L’Hermitage.
“And they flip the plate and they read the bottom. And I can see it on their face: ‘Ooooooh reeeallllyy.’” Essakl tells this story proudly; he’s been impressing guests for decades working at name brand restaurants in Washington, D.C.
But building his own place in Woodbridge was not easy. “I went through hell to put it together,” remembers Essakl.
Before the collapse of Wall Street, when as Essakl says, “banks were lending money to just anybody to buy anything,” the Casablanca-born restaurateur could not secure a loan. Years later he can still easily list the names of banks that rejected his proposal. They told him he could receive money for a house, but certainly not a French restaurant.
Essakl turned to his network, borrowing thousands of dollars from his parents and friends, plus dipping into loan shark waters.
“I gave up my dignity, my pride, I gave up everything.” He would fill his car’s radiator with water to get another ten miles of out of it.
During this time his younger brother was killed by a drunk driver. “I was thinking of quitting again,” Essakl says, recalling this dark period, “and walk away from the place and put it for sale. I wanted someone to take over the loans.”
Instead, he wed the woman his brother told him to marry, and with all of her savings—$100,000— Essakl opened his own restaurant.
The five years he took building the restaurant show in each stone he pieced together to create the wall, engineering an enchanting cave atmosphere. The walls glow in a sunset orange, adorned with a hodgepodge of soft paintings around the room.
A plate of Bubblicious-pink tuna arrives, jolting the low-lit surrounding palette. The tuna eats like a steak in its substantiality, but is at times overtaken by the bits of sharp, coarse salt that causes discomfort to the teeth. The fish is encircled with fingerling potatoes, (limp) chard and artfully intertwined rings of a creamy beurre blanc and balsamic reduction, bringing the flavors together in ultimate success.
The latter flavor, a signature item of chef Dawn Burkart, finds room on a number of plates.
Burkart fits well into the cozy, refined dining room.
Essakl has a rule when hiring a chef: low volume. He brought on his first chef with one request: “Please, no yelling and screaming in the kitchen.” The owner knew the food could be judged over time, but a calm kitchen must be arranged from the beginning.
After three weeks the chef ripped off his apron, screaming in earshot of Essakl’s former co-workers; he didn’t last much longer. When another blow-up about plating issues erupted in the dining room, Essakl sneaked outside and offered the gig to Burkrat over the phone, whom he knew through their time at the Watergate. She accepted after her first visit.
Burkrat is a student of French cooking, but wanders around the globe for inspiration.
Staying in the European mentality, Burkart borrows from England by piling waffle-cut potato chips atop tender trout for a luxe spin on fish and chips on the midday menu. The snap of the chip against the cheesy, hard-cooked risotto works both as a texture change and a moment of childhood glee. (Finding the bag of potato chips in my Popples-themed lunchbox during elementary school was the day’s highlight.)
Rebuking cheese’s allure, onion soup arrives missing its cloak of melted Gruyere. Instead, a beef and leek stock, dense with onions, carries a single slice of bread with cheese.
Burkart claims all that cheese is too much to proceed a rich dinner; I say, cheese please.
One night, a chicken leg is moist but a breast weeps of dryness. A farmed salmon filet also suffers from no flavor; a prime example of what’s wrong with the way we eat the overfished creature in this country.
The dinner’s end returns to beauty. An aristocratic pattern of gold and black rim one of the many plates Essakl keeps in his rotation. A regal and rich chocolate mousse, dotted with bits of chocolate crunch, whips into a sweet treasure that is hard to leave in its glass bowl.
Many years ago, after meeting a man that “looked like John Gotti,” and claimed to be neighbors with Bruce Springsteen, Essakl received the tip that would help him piece together his ensembled restaurant: “You know, the dumpster of New York is Richmond.”
And with that, Essakl tore through warehouses to find the most beautiful pieces, the best prices.
And eventually, worthy food.
Save room for the whipped chocolate mousse.
Appetizers: $8 – $17 ; Entrees: $22 – $28
Lunch Tuesday through Friday; dinner Tuesday through Sunday; brunch Saturday and Sunday
12724 Occoquan Road, Woodbridge; 703-499-9550; bistrolhermitage.com