Who am I this time?

The Bistro inches through incremental evolution

That little restaurant space with the burgundy awning near Lovers and Inwood has gone through some modest mutations over the years. In 1992, it was Le Caviste, a French wine bistro. Then in 1993, Guy and Martine Calluaud appropriated the space and created Calluaud's restaurant, a more informal version of their former spot on McKinney Avenue. Calluaud injected a light tapas menu into the bistro mix and, in a fit of imaginative word play, renamed it The Bistro.

By 1996, Jim Cantrell, former executive chef at the Barkley Hotel in Chicago, and his wife, Liz, had the place in their hands. They added a corner fireplace, some couches in the bar, and drenched it with amber lighting. The tapas menu was retained with some variations along with a mishmash of other Mediterranean dishes, everything from lobster fettuccini to Moroccan couscous. Then, last fall, Cantrell sold The Bistro to Dudley and Elaine Dancer. It's operated by Zenon Oprysk, former owner of the now shuttered Tiburon bar on Greenville Avenue, and his wife, Stephanie, (daughter of the Dancers).

They did some minor nipping and tucking, such as toning down the gauche color scheme of bright pinks, lavender woodwork, and blue-green carpet to earthy beiges and browns. They also dropped the tapas roster and redirected the menu toward genuine bistro fare, which brings with it a welcome emphasis on wine. Sure, there's the expected weight on California, but it's liberally sprinkled with wines from France, Italy, Chile, Spain--even Texas. Plus, there's a section called Bistro wines offering a stimulating slate of whites (like the delicious King Estates Pinot Gris) and a couple of roses (disastrously underappreciated drinks).

Since opening, the kitchen lineup has been shuffled. Opening executive chef Bryan Chambers, formerly of the Green Room, exited at the beginning of the year, and sous chef Ken Howell, former executive chef of the defunct Doolittle's, has taken charge. He's joined by former Yellow sous chef Kerry Kelly and onetime Cafe Pacific sous chef Adam Keith. The menu is a strong improvement over the often lax fare that plagued the previous incarnation, which was preoccupied with tapas. Yet it still doesn't uniformly sing as it should, considering the experience in the kitchen. Everything, from the service to the menu, suffers from a slight but noticeable awkwardness.

On one visit we had a server who admitted she was a spring-break reinforcement. She was pleasant enough, but the only wines and menu items she knew well were those she had chewed and sipped as a customer. On another visit, the service was stiff and impersonal. When I asked the server about the beef bourguignonne, he hesitated and halfheartedly endorsed it--a mistake, because the meat was dry and fibrous, and the side of diced carrot, parsnip, and rutabaga was oily.

A thing even more vexing is the cassoulet. Beans are the essential ingredients in this dish. But meat--pork loins or hams, sausages, goose, or duck--is what gives this creamy creation its backbone and rustic character. The Bistro created a veggie dish with that diced carrot, parsnip, and rutabaga mix, which is fine as an option. But why not offer a meat version? Without the meats, it's just a pot of flatus bullets.

Other things worked well. The páte plate had a velvety-smooth rendition and a slice of hearty, rich country páte. A clump of caramelized onions over lively dressed greens also was good, as was the assortment of cheeses (smoked Gouda, Stilton, Havarti with dill, and Brie). But a cluster of apple wedges was dry and wooly. Smoked venison sausage in wild mushroom risotto screamed with steady richness: The risotto, flush with Parmesan, was creamy and supple, the mushrooms firm and meaty with flavor just as resolute as the texture. The venison was chewy, tasty, and satisfying (this is the stuff they offered to toss in my cassoulet). Another example of immaculate cookery was the Champagne-roasted mussels with leeks and bits of roasted tomato. The mussels hit that rare bit of textural balance between chewy toughness and soft mushiness--the whole dish had an affluence of firmly clean flavors. Walnut-crusted sea bass on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes had crisp sheathing and firmly delicate edges, but the center was mushy, as if undercooked. Plus, a side of sun-dried tomatoes, morels, and asparagus didn't seamlessly mesh with the fish. The morels alone might provide a simpler touch. But this is perhaps a metaphor for The Bistro: It has solid conceptual foundations, but details slip through the cracks here and there. With a little work, this restaurant will kick some cassoulet.

The linchpin in the brood of Daddy Jack's restaurants is lobster insanity, a 1-pound lobster dinner for $10.95 on weekdays and $14.95 on weekends. Good stuff, this ocean-borne mental illness. The pre-cracked crawler is sweet and rich, if perhaps slightly mushy in the claws. Sharing the plate is an ear of corn that's as firm, juicy, and sweet as any you'll find, though the baked potato resembles a dehydrated cud. This dinner is fully equipped: There's the plastic lobster bib, the little fork, the crusher, and the side plate for discarding spent shells.

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