Four-point-oh

Bistro A scores straight, solid grades

Funny things happen when people get on in years all flush and seasoned with life experience. Frivolous amusements lose their luster, and things like regularity and mutual-fund yields get our hearts pumping harder than Victoria's Secret catalogs or Marky Mark underwear ads did before 401K became more meaningful than K-Y.

As we age, we tend to simplify. That is perhaps what makes Bistro A such a good thing for Dallas, as well as consulting chef Avner Samuel, who has had his share of the fast-lane amusements in the restaurant industry. Bistro A embraces an appreciation for basics and simplicity that seems to take hold with maturity--the kind of simplicity that sizzles with relentless attention to detail and an imaginative flare.

Samuel says the menu is similar to the food he created years ago while rising up in the restaurant business in his native Israel. It incorporates Spanish, French, and Italian influences along with Middle Eastern and North African spices. "Part of the idea behind it is taking the best-quality food that you can and keeping it simple...letting the natural good flavors of the food come through rather than getting too foo foo with it," says chef Eric Keller, formerly of NorthSouth and Sfuzzi's, who collaborated with Samuel on the menu's development.

No doubt there's an intense focus on freshness here. Table compliments include warm, moist, tender pita bread and a dish (with a section for pits) of dry-cured kalamatas and nicoise olives that have all of the appropriate intensity of flavor and none of facile wimpiness found in these offerings at other venues.

A mazza plate, listed as assorted chef's antipasto on the brunch menu, had the freshest, cleanest cast of Middle Eastern appetizers you're likely to find. Hummus was creamy and nutty, while the stuffed grape leaf had a moist, chewy rice interior wrapped in a vibrant green, aromatic grape leaf--characteristics rarely seen or sniffed in this assembly.

Tahini--ground sesame--was smooth, tangy, and well balanced, while the falafel was crisp and light. The plate had two eggplant relish preparations: one with red wine that was firm, clean, and tangy; and another with olive oil that was nutty and smooth if a little mushy. Roasted peppers and a simple garden salad with chopped cucumber, tomato, and onion doused with lemon olive oil round out the platter.

Bistro A's specials often reveal a few Asian influences. Red tuna tartar, a stubby silo of chopped fish in a light soy-ginger glaze on a bed of shredded cucumber, was capped with a clump of firm, delicate ossetra caviar. Threads of parsley cream sauce were drizzled around the large, white serving bowl. The dish held an appealing contrast between the firm, tender tuna and the vigorous crunch of cucumber.

Equally rich in appealing contrast, the endive and arugula salad in a balsamic dressing was accessorized with caramelized pears and Roquefort cheese. This set up a compelling interplay between pear sweetness, strong Roquefort tang, and nutty arugula pungency. Plus, the trio of Belgian endive leaves arranged symmetrically around the large serving bowl were freshly clean without a hint of browning, a common affliction in many restaurants.

Bistro A's wine list is fairly solid in a mostly middle-of-the-road sort of way. There's even a proprietor's list with some fairly well-known prestige wines from Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Napa. But in keeping with the creativity of the menu, you might expect a little more daring experimentation with a greater depth of offerings from regions near or on the Mediterranean such as the Rhone, southern France, or even Lebanon (Chateau Musar) and Israel. In all fairness, there is a Greek retsina, a Tavel rose from the southern Rhone (though it is listed as hailing from Provence) and a Fitou from the Languedoc-Roussillon, plus a handful of selections from Italy and Spain to add interest to the list.

And an Olivier La Flaive Santenay, from a village that produces some excellent values in Burgundy, worked fine with our entrees, which flowed as smoothly in the vein of sparkling simplicity as the appetizers. Grilled lamb brochette was served on skewers over a bed of crisp tabouli with a restrained surge of lemon. The girding balanced beautifully with the minted meat without swamping it in acidity (the menu described the tabouli as suffused with mint, but our lamb held the herb). The chewy meat itself was juicy, rich, and lean.

Spinach and aged-ricotta ravioli was less successful, though it was by no means unsuccessful. Served in a nutty sage beurre nicoise made from browned whole butter spiked with chicken stock, the large ravioli seemed slightly under-sauced and gummy. Though it was light and satisfying without clobbering the palate with richness, it took effort to latch onto the flavors.

Brunch offerings held even more small surprises. Bistro A seems to have discovered the secret to successful eggs Benedict well known among diners, yet elusive to many kitchens: warm eggs and hollandaise-sauce flood control. Most of the time this preparation is served with cold, hard eggs swamped in thick, coagulating hollandaise choking in lemon. Bistro A's had warm poached eggs on grilled bruschetta with pieces of moist chicken--instead of little Canadian pork Frisbees--in a light, appropriately portioned oregano hollandaise. This allowed all of the fresh, clean flavors to come through without leaving the gullet leaden.

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