Aiming low, hitting highs

Bistral shoots for cheap casual and hits with taste

Bistral's version of pan-roasted garlic chicken was tender, moist, well-seasoned, and sheathed in a delicately crispy skin. Plus, a side of sweet corn pudding with a crisp crust was flush with near-soufflé lightness. But a side of shoestring veggies -- carrot, squash, and zucchini -- was a tangle of freshly shredded boredom. Shake the spice cabinet onto this one.

Simple European comfort food with little twists and quirks is what Richmont is hoping will keep Uptown folks filing through the doors. (For a while, that's probably all who will hit the spot without significant inconvenience. McKinney Avenue reconstruction started last week right in front of the restaurant.) There were rumors Bistral was a prototype for a North American chain, which is, after all, what corporations reflexively do with their ideas. Richmont operates a La Madeleine-like string of restaurants in Canada it calls Michel's Baguette. "I don't say that," snaps LaCota when asked about a Bistral spread. "I'm a big believer in focusing on what you've got. Right now, we're continuing to fine-tune it, and in 10 years I'm sure we'll be tweaking it."

And tweaks and little screw-turns (service is very friendly, but a little green) are just about all Bistral needs right now, though some preparations need more turns than others. Fried mozzarella salad was two dismal cheese pucks alternating with thick slices of robust tomato plunked on greens washed in zesty tomato vinaigrette. Bland things, these breaded disks, maybe a little stale.

Bistral's bread is good, but the pastries need work.
Jon Lagow
Bistral's bread is good, but the pastries need work.

Details

Monday-Thursday
6:30 a.m.-10 p.m

Friday
6:30 a.m.-11 p.m.

Saturday
8 a.m.-11 p.m.

Sunday
8 a.m.-10 p.m.

(214) 220-1202

$$

2900 McKinney Ave.

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The saffron aioli in the Parmesan-fried calamari tasted like whipped Crisco, which in turn made the calamari coating come off like deep-fried drywall. Skipping the aioli and making use of the plate's red bell pepper-tomato sauce dribbles is the route to go with these tender, almost pallid squid rings.

Other things prove to be just minor annoyances, like the amount of effort required to exhume one of the sparsely strewn shoestring strands of fresh pear in Bistral's chopped blue cheese and pear salad. A little more fruit would have made the well-assembled collection of cheese pebbles, peppers, cucumbers, and toasted walnuts slathered in a yogurt-lemon dressing more satisfying.

Bistral has a tight little wine list of stimulating cheapness: a Muscadet for $20, a Carmenet white Bordeaux blend at $33, a cote du Rhone at $19 -- even a rosé.

The lush cherry in the 1996 Domaine Bertrand Ambroise Bourgogne (Burgundy) engaged the pecan-smoked chicken and linguine pasta. Generously cluttered with moist white and dark chicken meat, the bowl's pasta strands were firm and supple. And the wine's acidity delicately complemented the light, agile fontina cream sauce while successfully staring down the tang in the dish's oven-dried tomatoes.

Holben says his next job will be to work with Wynnwood pastry chef and baker William Hunter to "help him pump it up." Good target. While the breads were good, the desserts lacked flair. Fruit tart -- with glazed blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, kiwi, and pineapple -- was bold in looks and dithering in taste. A lemon meringue tart followed suit with an oversized, lumbering meringue puff with far too little lemon custard to counter the fog. Maybe this is where the 10-year tweak plan should start.

"We want to be that friendly type of restaurant that people can come to more than once a week," Holben says. "That's affordable, yet still intriguing, where there's still some things that are a little bit different but it's not...uhhh...pretentious."

The nail's been pretty much whacked on the head.

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