By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
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.
Mediterranean shakshuka baked in a wood-burning oven was a kind of clay pot breakfast stew of potatoes, peppers, and eggplant in marinara sauce topped with two eggs. The dish was hearty and satisfying yet light. The only drawback was that the marinara left it watery.
A trio of little dishes turned out to make a swell dessert. Triple creme brulee included a tiny cup each of chocolate, black cherry, and vanilla flavored custard capped with hot, crunchy caramelized sugar. The custard was creamy smooth without being runny, and the black cherry had a good tang while the vanilla and chocolate flavorings didn't overrun the filling.
Our server at brunch warned us the shredded filo with white cheese knaffe with rose-water syrup was an acquired taste and that it might be best to experiment with something a little more mainstream. And when it arrived, I admit I had my doubts. An angular chunk of cheese is carpeted with filo shreds that look like mealworms after a neon orange rinse in a Deep Ellum salon. But it actually turned out to be a refreshingly undessert-like dessert with mild, chewy white cheese mingled with the restrained sweetness of the syrup.
Bistro A's reconstituted back-to-basics flare is reflected in its location as well as the menu. Far from a busy North Dallas mall or a flashy slot on McKinney Avenue (a strip that is suffering from glitter corrosion with all of the recent restaurant closings and shifts nearby), Bistro A is shoehorned into a space in a residential neighborhood surrounding Snider Plaza--in a former paint store, for God's sake.
And it's elegant, though it's obvious it was done on the cheap. The dining room is populated with standard-issue laminated tables and padded chairs. Dark green awnings hang over the front door and windows whose aluminum frames have been subjected to some kind of copper-hued, texturized spray paint. From a distance, it looks distinctively handsome. But a closer inspection reveals paint flaking and chipping on the door. The entrance is furnished with rustic tables, benches, and armoires with a special wood-plank dining table near the front window.
The upper portion of the walls is covered in wide stripes of textured silver and gold paint on which rest pen-and-ink artwork and a row of odd sconces composed of two thick layers of greenish-blue glass. Pottery Barn-like spot lighting hangs above the seating area in front of the open kitchen, which sparkles with aluminum trim and copper pots hanging from above. The design shows make-a-dollar-scream resourcefulness in execution.
And although Samuel's role is limited to a consulting on menu and restaurant design (he's not listed as an owner or officer), the question remains: Can this place survive with Samuel heading the kitchen, given his legendary capriciousness and volcanic temperament?
"Avner has really decided he's going to be a new man and put all the things that have gone on in the past behind him," relays Keller. "That's part of the reason we have the kitchen in the middle of the restaurant. So he's somewhat forced to keep those things in control."
Almost as if to subliminally address doubts about Samuel's stability and commitment to this cozy neighborhood eatery, assorted photos of him and his family are arranged in the waiting area. Service reflects this pampering, comfortable tone without getting sickeningly drippy.
Bistro A is owned by a small partnership--which includes Samuel's wife, Celeste--called Asher Investments (hence the A in the name) headed by restaurant consultant Matthew Feldman. Feldman says Samuel's track record doesn't concern him, and he feels Samuel is a changed man. "He's very committed to what he's doing," he explains. "I think we have the winning formula with Avner, to keep him happy and focused. I've known Avner for a long, long time, and I know what the challenges have been in the past, and I think we've overcome a lot of those issues."
More than a few operators and investors have teamed up with Samuel harboring these same beliefs, only to see things collapse a short time later. Here's hoping it's different this time.
6815 Snider Plaza Blvd.,(214) 373-9911.Open for lunch Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.Open for dinner Monday-Thursday 5:30-10 p.m., Friday & Saturday 5:30-10:30 p.m.Open for Sunday brunch11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.$$-$$$