Friday, October 1, 2010
Belle’s Bistro has been open for a few years, and two years ago I took my French houseguest there after reading about the wonderful food. The setting, more split-ranch than restaurant digs, was comfortable albeit small, and the noise level close to airport-runway- decibel caliber. The service, however, was attentive, the menu looked enticing, the wine list appealing and the portions enormous. The problem was that the food looked much better than it tasted, and we never went back.
Fast-forward to last week, when another foodie recommended Belle’s to me and I went to see if it had truly improved. The noise level is still garage-band loud, service still friendly and comfortable. We got a menu and wine list, and were persuaded by our server to think of drinks first. (We sat at a booth and I recommend them, as sitting at a table can be an exercise in dodging the plates that start to hover overhead when service is hopping. You can also eat at the bar). Our server then asked us to order our first course; after those got relayed to the chef, she would take our entree order. This was a nice touch; the place was filling up and this made sure that we would get some food and wine within a few minutes of ordering.
The menu gives you enough choices without overwhelming you with too many, and the chef does not believe in subtlety – your taste buds will not be invited to join, they will be taken hostage. This is a meat eater’s haven – steaks, chops, duck – so vegetarians be warned. A roasted beet salad with nuts and goat cheese was very fresh but lacked cohesion; the three elements weren’t tied together with any discernible dressing, and had not been well-tossed. The Asian pear salad with frisée lettuce, chunks of lardon, walnuts and Gorgonzola was much more successful, laced with a great vinaigrette, but the pears were not sweet enough to counter the sharp dressing. An appetizer of firecracker shrimp was good-sized (ten crisp shrimp) and while the hot sauce tasted like Tabasco, underneath the heat was a mild sweet swipe of orange syrup, a good duet of tastes. The crab cake was the appetizer winner for our table – a perfectly seasoned patty, delicately browned and presented in a small pool of light citrus tartar sauce, simply wonderful.
Both salads and appetizers were large servings, but the entrées defy the ability of any two people to finish them. The New Orleans étouffée is an enormous bowl of plump shrimp, crayfish and andouille sausage stew in a spiced and smoky pepper-based broth topped by a mound of white rice. The broth, while tasty, suffered a bit from over salting. The pasta Bolognese was a huge serving of that mellow veal and pork ragu over a small amount of wide papardelle noodles, with just a few slivers of dried out Parmesan cheese when it could have used a nice fresh grating on top. The flavors were satisfying but the presentation – a sea of dark meat sauce in a huge bowl with no color contrasts – needed help. There was no blending of the pasta with the sauce, but rather a layering of the two separate tastes.
The grilled sea scallops were a revelation; perfectly grilled, perfectly fresh, with a lovely corn and scallion risotto and a roasted red pepper aioli for taste and color. This was one dish which did not overwhelm by the quantity of food, but was still generous for one person. The grilled pork chop was large and juicy, with bourbon BBQ glacé on the side and a sweet potato mash that was silky and luscious. Green beans added some needed crunch to the plate. Desserts are homemade – the crème brûlée was a silky pudding with the exact amount of burnt sugar on top; the apple crisp was a huge portion of “crisp,” fewer apples, but tangy and sweet and satisfying.
The wine list is good-sized and filled with nice choices, with a range of prices from the $24 mark to $139; half bottles are also available. They did not have the Chianti Classico we ordered and we had to settle for a less mature bottle, which needed to breathe – deeply – to make a decent glass. Nice to note that there were two dessert wines on the menu, a Muscat and a Sauterne, at a reasonable price per glass.
I liked the food and wish the chef would add half-portions of the pastas to the menu; that way, you could eat like they do in Italy – a little appetizer, some pasta and a main course – all while saving room for some dessert. Good wine, good food, good time and a doggie bag – good (noisy!) fun.
Open Tuesday - Wednesday 5 to 9 p.m, Thursday through Saturday until 9:30 p.m.
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