With a background in classical French and Vietnamese cooking, Spike Mendelsohn never thought he’d be known for burgers and pizza. But five years after springing into the national spotlight with a Top Chef: Chicago appearance, the 32-year-old Washington-based chef is getting back to his Gallic roots with the opening of a French bistro located just a couple doors down from his Capitol Hill burger spot, Good Stuff Eatery, and popular pizza parlor, We, The Pizza. Béarnaise, a modern take on a classic French bistro, opened July 5 with Mendelsohn’s close friend and cooking partner, Brad Race, at the helm. We sat down with Mendelsohn and chatted steak frites, wine and his future plans.
What’s the inspiration for Béarnaise?
I come from a huge restaurant background, with my family being in the business in Montreal. After culinary school, I traveled all over the world, training in fine-dining restaurants — lots of classic French food. I also grew up eating steak frites all the time in Montreal, and when I was in Paris, I ate at a lot of steak frites restaurants. It was the reality show that threw me for a loop. All of a sudden, hamburgers and pizza are putting me on the map, instead of any of my other formal training (in Vietnamese, French and Mediterranean cuisine). After doing this for five years, I wanted to settle back down with a more traditional restaurant.
I’m in love with steak frites restaurants. Whenever I go to a bistro, I order French onion soup, steak frites and snails. There’s a concept out there — Le Relais de Venise (often referred to as L’Entrecôte) in Paris and L’Entrecôte Saint-Jean in Montreal — that just offers steak frites, so I’m not making this up. Like we did [at Good Stuff Eatery and We, The Pizza], we took burgers and made them our own, we took pizza and made it our own. I want to take the steak frites concept and make it my own.
What is the menu like?
Traditionally, a steak frites restaurant doesn’t even have a menu. You sit down and you get a salad. They ask you, “Blue, rare or well?” You don’t even get the choice of medium-rare or medium-well. Then they bring you half your steak, and after you’ve finished that, they’ll bring you the second portion of your steak. And if you’d like dessert, you choose.
For us, we wanted to rework it a little bit. For the first course, we’re offering our house salad, served with haricots verts and radishes, and a nice mustard vinaigrette; French onion soup; and our soup du jour, which will be a seasonal soup. Right now, it’s vichyssoise (a traditional French cold soup), but it could be anything from carrot-ginger to butternut or a legume—whatever is in season.
For your second course, you’ll get choice of: the house steak, which is a flatiron; for the meat enthusiast looking for something a little fattier, a ribeye; and a filet for something leaner. Then, with that you get a choice of one of five sauces: Béarnaise, spicy Béarnaise, au poivre, Bordelaise and maître d’hôtel butter. Everything’s served avec frites — all night long, you can get refillable fries.
The first two courses are part of the prix fixe menu. If people want to order one of the sides, they can. If they’d like to stay for dessert, we have some really great traditional desserts — chocolate Chantilly, profiteroles, praline crème brûlée and a seasonal tart. Everything is made a little differently; we don’t have the traditional crème brûlée — it’ll always be something flavored.
The simplicity of the menu affords us the opportunity to run lots of specials—[like] a prime rib night or a lobster frites night. Also, our bar has petits bouchons (little snacks) — moules frites (mussels and French fries), foie gras, frog legs, snails — so we’ll be able to be a little more creative with that. The [prix fixe style] will always be the base menu, and then we can always add things.
If someone said, “I’ll leave it in your hands,” what would you serve them?
French onion soup, ribeye with Béarnaise — and I’ll probably hustle the waiter to send me a side of Bordelaise also. I’ll replenish the fries, and as a side, I’d do the Brussels sprouts and Béarnaise. And I’m a sucker for crème brûlée. Pair that with a couple of cocktails and some nice wine.
Tell us about Béarnaise’s wine list.
Everything’s priced at $40 (by the glass, it’s $10). It takes a bit of the wine snobbery out of the equation. You’re not really picking your wine by the price. I try to give as much value as I can — some of the bottles, if people price check, will be a little less expensive than others, some more expensive.
I know when I get a menu, and it’s just a regular night out, I’m usually in the $45 to $75 range, then I only have about four wines to choose from at that point. I wanted to make this more fun; I want people to come in, work their way through the wine list and become wine enthusiasts. We also have a reserve list if people really want to impress somebody and throw down some big bucks.
You have other locations of Good Stuff Eatery. Are there plans to open more locations of Béarnaise?
We have other locations of Good Stuff: Crystal City, Va., Georgetown opened in late July and Philadelphia is under construction. We, The Pizza is going to be taking a couple more locations. Béarnaise also will eventually — we built it to open up more. The success of the first one will determine how fast and where we go.
Do you have plans for other restaurant concepts?
Brad [Race] and I are young, so I’m sure there will be other concepts. In this company, we like to see our concepts through. For Good Stuff, it was a good two years of grilling burgers myself. This place [Béarnaise], I’m not sure. I’m definitely here, launching and cooking in the kitchen with Brad. Eventually, I’ll get back to the other things I do, which is traveling, doing [food festivals] and maybe thinking of new opportunities for the company. We always wanted to do a fast-casual rotisserie chicken concept. I want to do a Vietnamese restaurant — I have extensive training in Vietnamese food, so I’d like to get back to that at some point.
What else do you have coming up?
I have a show [debuting] on Cooking Channel and Food Network Canada in September, which I just got done filming in Los Angeles. It’s a competition food truck show. It’s like The Great Food Truck Race meets Chopped and Shark Tank together: Four groups of people pitch their food truck concept; two [groups] get eliminated after the pitch; and for two, we actually make their trucks and their ideas for them, then they go head-to-head in a battle to see who can make the most money over two selling days. Whoever does that wins the contract and gets to keep their food truck for a year.
Photos Courtesy of Spike Mendelsohn and Joe Shymanski