Aiming low, hitting highs
It's easy to take potshots at corporate restaurants, those cookie-cutter cafés, brasseries, and bistros with homogeneous faux European menus devised by pencil pushers who scoot around in leased BMWs. They're slick, focus-group hatchlings with recipes and ingredients devised and taste-tested on spread sheets.
"It's the independents who pump the creative juice into the restaurant business," we romanticize, maybe while sipping herb tea or bruising our foreheads on wind chimes. "Vigorous entrepreneurs bring the vitality and creativity. The verve. The soul." Then they throw pots at the landlord or fill their pockets with investor funds and the place goes belly-up.
I must admit, I like a little corporate culture in restaurants now and then. A little discipline never hurt a restaurant, not in theory anyway. Yet far too often, corporate culture results in barely palatable examples of manufactured monotony. Then again, at other times you get Samba Room or Pappas Brothers Steakhouse.
Bistral Neighborhood Bistro and Bakery may rank with that pair with respect to how it's executed. It's the new McKinney Avenue corporate footprint planted by Dallas-based Richmont Corp., the firm that operates Wynnwood, which in turn operates Seventeen Seventeen in the Dallas Museum of Art.
Bistral isn't dazzling or glitzy or slick, even in a cheap way. And it certainly doesn't shovel out "look at me, I'm the chef" culinary stunts. But it doesn't take shots at those targets. The blurb on the menu says the restaurant is "Reminiscent of Europe, where locals frequent their favorite bistros for reliable, satisfying fare."
"It's meant to be just a casual place, come as you are, but you've got a chef in the back," says Richmont President and Chief Executive Officer Irene LaCota. "And the food's reasonable, and it's not just a destination restaurant. It's a place you come once, twice a week."
Jeez, every corporate restaurant wants that, especially one ostensibly poised to multiply like lines of tax code. But this one actually does make you feel like coming back. And it's not because of the decor. Handsome with lots of wood, the place is a bit chilly. Too many hard surfaces, not enough cush. Lots of Pottery Barn-like sconces and chandeliers -- many cockeyed and otherwise out-of-kilter -- speckle the dining room, some with amber shells to add a little warmth.
Bistral also has a zinc bar "displaying a metallic design characteristic of traditional French bistros. Zinc bars are extremely rare in the United States," Bistral's fact sheet points out. But unless you want to galvanize your belt buckle or your boot tips, zinc won't bring you back.
No, the reason for multiple visits here is that chef in the back -- and the fact that you can sample the food for between seven and 12 bucks.
Richmont was shrewd enough to draw on talent they already had stabled to draft the menu for Bistral: Raoul Orosa of Seventeen Seventeen. Orosa is as imaginative and well-endowed in the taste-bud department as they come. One of his concoctions is a pork chop in banana chutney. Yet this smooth condiment isn't made with banana, but with pan-fried papaya and currant blended with onion, sugar, and vinegar before it's pock-marked with dried cherries. It smoothly punches the pork with a slight puckering robustness. It would have been even better if the pork had a little more tenderness. Though moist, the dense, thick pork loin chop was tough and chewy with a center that never blushed, no matter where you cut.
But a side of tasty thyme-roasted potatoes, scattered with green bell peppers, proved irresistible.
Irresistibility also infected the trout, only it wasn't the fish that drove the fixation. It was the stuff that carpeted the plate: a rustic blend of nutty black lentils shuffled together with onion, tomato, and corn, creating a foil to the sweet, elegantly delicate trout in lemon-caper sauce.
This dish was crafted by new Bistral chef Garreth Dickey, former sous chef at the Green Room with a prior stint at Star Canyon. To bring this talent together into a cohesive blend, Richmont recently plucked FoodStar Executive Chef David Holben, who seems to leave a lively, yet understated, touch wherever he fiddles.
"I'm the person to help the [chefs] to bring them up to the best they can be," he says. "And then help the company to make as much money as possible."
Holben has that corporate touch down too, which partly explains why Richmont executives were always fans of his, avidly frequenting Mediterraneo in Plano. There was even a rumor that, at one point, Richmont offered FoodStar $3 million-plus for the restaurant, a bit of gossip LaCota firmly dismisses.
Yet corporate culture doesn't seem to be infecting the place with any significant detractions. And with Holben in place, it promises only to get better -- not that he doesn't have at least a little work to do.
Beef carpaccio, more cardboard-thick slices than paper-thin shavings, had a slightly soapy taste, though the mustard cream sauce neutralized much of that insipid flavor. The top of the dish was cluttered with thick strips of portobello mushroom: a stimulating touch, though I wondered whether it might have meshed better if the mushroom meat had been cut thinner or somehow more delicately and then freshly kissed with a sauté pan.
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.
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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