Wet kiss

Bizu isn't Alberto Lombardi's first French bistro, and Bizu, which means "little kiss" in French (with a twist on the French spelling), probably won't be his last.

But what do I know? Sure, I'd stabbed my fork into some marginal meals at Lombardi's in the West End. And I'd sat my butt down in Lombardi Mare, his Addison seafood and pasta shanty, where goldfish puckered their lips in glass bowls strung above the bar while I smacked my own lips over one of the best souffles I've had in Dallas. But I was largely ignorant of the breadth of the Alberto Lombardi legacy. That is, until I called the Lombardi corporate office in Dallas and received a manila envelope swelling with marketing propaganda, a disheveled hodgepodge of promotional scraps.

The kit contained an oversized Bizu postcard, Bizu menus, and a black spiral-bound catalog of press clips, restaurant descriptions, and menus from virtually every existing Lombardi enterprise. The first page was a bio with a portrait of Lombardi sitting comfortably in a blue-gray suit, his clasped hands displaying a diamond-studded sapphire ring. He has the smile of a newly retired shortstop who has just opened his own insurance agency.

According to the spiral book, Lombardi was born in Forli, Italy, and worked in hotels and restaurants in Belgium and Germany before he landed a job aboard a Norwegian Cruise Lines luxury liner. Work in French restaurants in Miami and San Francisco followed. He came to Dallas in 1973 and launched his local career working as a waiter at the Grape before moving on to the Fairmont Hotel, where he was maitre d' in the Venetian Room.

The account relates how Lombardi opened his first restaurant in 1977 on McKinney Avenue and eventually operated a dozen venues in the city before selling all but the West End location. Tucked among the verbiage is a damn good quote: "If you are in this business, you need to know every part of it, or you are going to close the door or just accept mediocrity," he says. "Like anything else, you pick up the good parts and throw away the bad things."

One gets the impression that Lombardi might have actually spit these words from his lips. I mean, compare this with the following Stephan Pyles quote extracted from a recent AquaKnox release: "AquaKnox is the type of concept that lends itself to periodic changes and a spark of freshness. The Lounge is the perfect place to go right after work, through the evening, or after theater to enjoy intimate dining and cocktails."

But I digress. The most potent gem in that pack of marketing mulch from Lombardi was a fistful of newspaper reviews dating to 1979 on his original McKinney Avenue bistro, Le Rendez Vous. "Le Rendez Vous will make your pulse quicken with admiration while looking at its modish decor, done primarily in smart brown," says one reviewer, presumably with a face straightened through years of newspaper work. "Sleek and sophisticated are the adjectives most likely to come to mind in describing it."

Another critic adds more dimension with descriptions of Le Rendez Vous' atmosphere, expanding on the conspicuously over-40 crowd. "A plethora of silk shirtwaist dresses, hoop earrings and plaid kilts on the women. The men are less conventional," the writer adds after an Indiana Jones look-alike in a silver jacket catches her eye. The reviewer says that in Parisian restaurants, everyone eavesdrops. So she takes a stab at French authenticity, offering up a few select clips of dining-room chatter: "My family couldn't have afforded to send me to Harvard even if I was smart enough to get in." "It's very French to have rabbit." "Our little David is really very inquisitive. He asks questions." "I have absolutely no idea what it is I'm eating. But it's good."

These bits of babble offer a peek at what the city's dining scene was like then. Lots of inquisitive Harvard-wannabe sophisticates who ask questions about rabbits and then order the mystery meat, perhaps. It also gives you a glimpse of how far we've come with menu prices: A bowl of vichyssoise was two bucks. Grilled salmon with a great bearnaise sauce that "was awfully full of bones but nevertheless beautifully fresh in flavor" cost a scant $7.95. Glasses of house wine were a $1.35, cheap enough to cop a good buzz at the current hourly minimum wage.

One dinner at Le Rendez Vous started with rubbery escargot. At Bizu, the escargot, slathered in garlic butter, was actually quite good: chewy with a rich, earthy taste. Though swamped in a garlicky olive oil, Bizu's frog legs Provencal featured a delicious scattering of juicy, chewy limbs. There were also clumps of chopped tomatoes with fresh, zesty flesh--none of the waxy woolies you find so often this time of year.

Yet the rest of Bizu's menu was, as one Le Rendez Vous reviewer put so artfully years ago, "nothing to stir the super adjectives," at least not the kind you'd want to offer up in polite company. Scrambled eggs in puff pastry was stuffed with a limp egg, asparagus, and morel mushroom melange. Served almost cool, this brunch selection tasted like a Crisco cupcake. At the next table over, I spotted Monica Greene of Monica's Aca y Alla. She had ordered the same thing and was unenthusiastically probing it with a fork. The only flavor here came from a pile of moderately thin, seasoned pommes frites. These tuber sticks kicked, and they weren't drubbed in oil.

The same couldn't be said of the fried calamari. The stuff was greasy, flat, and lifeless. Even the dipping sauces, tartar and tomato-caper, couldn't rejuvenate these cuts of squid. Yet other brunch components gradually elevated the experience. French toast brioche with generous strips of chewy (if a bit dry) apple-smoked bacon was satisfyingly sapid--so much so that the occasional gooey, battery pocket was barely noticeable.

Best of the brunch bunch was the smoked salmon with a tender, toasted egg bagel and cream cheese. Smooth and smoky, the delicate sheets of salmon had none of the irritating stringiness that can make for an awkward breakfast chew. Again, the tomatoes were robust.

Sirloin-tip risotto was utterly ruined by the meat. The risotto was creamy and supple with a good, sharp punch of cheese raciness. But the beef was gray, tough and gristly, utterly lacking rich flavor, as if the stuff had been boiled. Duck a l'orange also disappointed. A roasted leg and thigh were sheathed in crispy skin, but the meat was dry in spots and lacked seasoning to flesh out the flavor, leaving the job to the puddle of dull orange sauce. Then there was the company this quacker kept on the plate: a twisted mass of overcooked vegetable slop. The only readily identifiable specimens in the dish were the whole pearly white cloves of garlic peeking out here and there from macerated knots and dollops of slush. Yet with sharp focus and determination, it was possible to identify some of the ingredients: onions, bell peppers, eggplant, and zucchini.

This blurry entree was in stark contrast to the Bizu decor. This is one of the most robustly crisp restaurants I've come across in a long time, and it seems remotely reminiscent of Le Rendez Vous, at least judging by past reviewer comments. Bizu is richly dressed in blond woods: hardwood floors, lots of slatted panels. And the walls are, while not slathered in smart brown, at least washed in clever pumpkin-pie-filling orange. A mirrored canopy skylight floods the dining room with sun during the day. And at night, the place is a shrouded tug-of-war between hard and soft surfaces, between chic edginess and diffused coziness. In the bar, brushed metal stools and a marble bar top are muted with a bench tossed with obese pillows. Back-lit bar booths separated with organza drapes create comfortably sophisticated, intimate nooks.

Greene, who has known Lombardi for some 20 years, takes a stroll through the restaurant with her dining companions, taking note of decorative touches. "It's very smartly done," she says. "I call it accessible. It doesn't exclude anybody from feeling comfortable."

That's because it's well equipped to handle Dallas' see-and-be seen crowd. Soft, white leather banquettes ride against a brick wall in the dining room. Above hang large mirrors with massive wood frames, offering sitters in the rattan chairs across the table a surreptitious peek at the dining room and the traffic strolling to and from the front door. Huge mirrors hang from chains on the brick wall in the bar as well. Little shelves at the base of the mirrors hold a dense row of votive candles, sending a subtle flicker through the room.

But Bizu will have a tough row to hoe, even with an improved menu. It seems to have the right price points ($14-$19 at dinner) to plug in well to its precarious McKinney Avenue slot, once Sfuzzi's and then Coco Pazzo. Service is attentive, if abrupt and a little awkward--nothing a few squirts of oil won't fix. And the atmosphere is bright, crisp, and comfortably sexy. But it seems structured to capture that fickle wave of Dallas appearance-makers who seem to feed appetites wholly unrelated to food for a time and then move on. On a Friday night, the bar was bristling with well-primped beauty, only to grow cold and deadly silent with sudden swiftness by 9:30--perhaps an omen.

Lombardi is too good a restaurateur not to have sniffed that danger out. He's not only launched a crowd of successful restaurants in Dallas, but in other cities as well, including Atlanta, Miami, Phoenix, and Captiva Island, Florida. Bizu's promise is something Dallas desperately needs: a stylish, hardcore nuts-and-bolts French bistro with staying power. Here's hoping he's spotted a rich opportunity in the trend line that's well beyond my perception.

Bizu, 2504 McKinney Ave., (214) 303-1002. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 11-12 a.m. Thursday, 11-1 a.m. Friday & Saturday. Sunday Brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. $$


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