It is midweek lunchtime and Mon Ami Gabi is packed. Is it always this busy at lunch? A server smiles, but says it seems slower than usual. What about dinner? Another smile, a signal that reservations would be wise.
Clearly Mon Ami Gabi has mastered the secret to success in the competitive restaurant world — and Reston has more than its fair share of good restaurants — and that is consistently good food at reasonable prices.
It also helps that Mon Ami Gabi aims to be a traditional French bistro and is so successful that, if the background conversations werenít unmistakably American English, you might think you were in Paris.
Most French bistro favorites are on the menu with little attempt to Americanize, except for the hamburgers, cheeseburgers and Maine lobster roll.
So take the opportunity to go French. The traditional onion soup au gratin, baked with a bubbling crust of melted gruyere, is rich and hearty, the perfect antidote to a brisk autumn day. If you follow that with Mon Ami Gabiís signature steak frites, you will block out those American voices and imagine you are in Paris.
The cooked-to-order steak — rare is actually rare, not raw or overcooked — is tender and juicy, served either ďclassiqueĒ with herb butter, au poivre with a lively brandy peppercorn sauce, or bordelaise with a sauce of red wine and caramelized onions with a roquefort sauce.
The frites, however, are problematic, which may be because they are hand-cut. Too many were neither thin and crisp nor soft and spongy, but a disappointing somewhere in between. On the positive side, that inconsistency may prevent you from consuming the entire heaping pile.
Many favorites are on both lunch and dinner menus, including the onion soup; steak and frites; escargot in garlic butter; frisee, kale and warm bacon salad with a soft poached egg; mussels mariniere; and sea scallops gratinee with caramelized fennel and onion marmalade, but the lunch menu offers crepes, quiche, burgers, tartines and sandwiches, while dinner lists more steaks and dishes such as trout amandine, braised lamb shanks, and burgundy-braised beef short ribs.
The desserts, too, are appealingly French, which means that menu is hard to ignore, even after a more-than-satisfying meal. Creme brulee, chocolate mousse and profiteroles always are tempting, but for a change, try the warm chocolate tart with homemade salted caramel ice cream or the roasted pain perdu, here made with pineapple bread and vanilla rum sauce.
To complement the meal, Mon Ami Gabi has a selection of 80 boutique French varietal wines, with bottles starting at $30. Twenty-five of these also are available by the glass, starting at $8, and, as with the bottles, going way up — not surprising when the selection includes an í07 Pommard and an í08/í10 Puligny Montrachet.
Mon Ami Gabi is part of a very small chain, with relatives in Bethesda, Las Vegas, Chicago and Oak Brook, Ill. Except for a few problematic frites — and that may be personal taste more than anything else — this restaurant seems to have figured out how to do things right: good food, reasonable prices, excellent wine selection, superb, quick and helpful service, even , for those who want it, a gluten-free menu.
It also provides a way to enjoy one of the great pleasures of France — its food — without crossing the ocean.