Primal bistro

Release Date: 2008-01-02

“You can find anything on Craigslist,” smirked my dining companion.

Well, excuse me; I’ve never searched it. But we had just been told by the owner of Soleil Bistro & Wine Bar that he found his chef on the omnibus website, and the concept still seemed a little alien. Yes, the kitchen seemed to be operating smoothly in the face of a surprisingly large Tuesday-evening crowd, and, yes, there had been merit in much of the food. Did this mean that the time-honored tradition of raiding someone else’s kitchen for talent is being threatened by the internet? Probably not, but we will remain vigilant.

Soleil’s front-of-the-house talent certainly featured locally familiar faces in any case. The owner had once been a manager at Biga, and we spotted one waiter who had been prominent at Le Rêve. For that matter, the house itself, though it had been retooled for the new operation with rough-hewn tabletops, black wicker chairs, and a banquette along one wall, still retained some of the feel of its previous incarnation as Café Europa. The ghost of classic French cuisine continued to lurk as well, though in somewhat simpler guise as the straightforward seafood cake demonstrated.

Sadly, the seafood cake, delicately flavored and short on bread fillers, is coming off the menu due to the public’s inability to comprehend that “seafood” doesn’t equal crab. Menus heavy with description frequently fail in the delivery department, but how much simpler can “Handmade Seafood Cake with Caper Dill Aioli” be? True, the caper dill sauce was not really an aioli (and it tended to smother the seafood flavors), but I doubt the dining public had made that the basis of its displeasure. And I doubt the somewhat blunt presentation atop large ribbons of romaine had loomed large in the equation. No, it was more likely a case of knee-jerk expectations pitted against reality.

The description of “Seared Scallop with Red Onion Confit and Ginger Carrot Purée” couldn’t be more straightforward, either, but the reality of a single scallop, no matter how artfully peppered and simply seared, does bump up against expectations as well; especially when compared to the very generous seafood cake, this dish seemed puny. A bigger scallop, more made of the good confit, and all would be well. A split salad of pear and gorgonzola with tiny tomatoes and candied walnuts in a good, tart dressing was all it was said to be and all one could want.

With the simple salad, the true essence of bistro, a term that’s thrown around with irrational exuberance these days, began to emerge. With the entrecôte, topped with tarragon butter and served with classic frites, I was transported straight back to Paris — slightly gristly (but perfectly medium-rare) steak and all. There is some confusion, in my mind at least, over the term entrecôte, which I would tend not to equate with strip steak, and if a traditional New York strip is what you’re expecting, disappointment may follow. But if it’s a primal bistro experience you crave, look no farther. The butter does need to go on the steak a little sooner (or not be kept so cold), but otherwise all was perfect, and the slightly crunchy julienned vegetables, if not strictly bistro-style, are simply an added bonus.

Many other entrées chez Soleil tend to get a little fancier — cinnamon-and-herb-marinated pork chop with creamy herbed polenta, for example. But for every plate of seared scallops in a sherry cream sauce, there’s a penne pasta with homemade marinara and chicken breast stuffed with manchego, chorizo, and raisins. And then there’s the roasted rack of New Zealand lamb. No brining, no marinating, no crusting with pistachios and/or mustard … Soleil’s is just the straight stuff, nicely charred on the exterior and still (mostly) pink on the interior. A cranberry-red-wine sauce was just sweet enough to play nicely against the full-flavored lamb, and potatoes au gratin provided a firm foundation. I think I’d move the julienned squash medley to the side, as it tended to muddy the mix, but in all another triumph of less is more.

Less is more is normally not the philosophy in play at dessert time, but you can flirt with the notion by splitting a dessert sampler plate; it comes with tasting-size portions of crème brûlée, tarte Tatin, chocolate-fondant cake, and tiramisu. The brûlée was comme il faut, the tiramisu as good as it gets in these parts, and the fondant cake adequately oozy and excessive. Only the Tatin flopped, due I’d guess to the inherent difficulty in getting the upside-down caramel coating and the top-become-bottom crust to work on such a small scale.

Tuesday nights are big at Soleil in part because of the wine promotion offering 50-percent off all bottles over $30. (We picked a big and gutsy Rombauer Merlot and were very happy indeed.) The same policy holds for sparkling wines on Wednesday. But Soleil’s wine bar, furnished with comfortable-looking sofas and complete with its own “not too Spanish” tapas menu, should certainly attract a diverse crowd on any evening. At lunch, I was told, the clientele consists of 95-percent women from the surrounding suburbs.

This turns out not to be the case on Saturday, when I followed my instincts straight to the open-face croque madame, a variant (some would say improvement) on the more-ubiquitous croque monsieur that was once a staple sandwich on the streets of Paris. Soleil’s rendition consists of ham, gruyere, and tomato broiled atop bread that has been spread with just enough bright-tasting basil pesto. A perfectly fried egg caps the creation, and it’s frankly sublime. Though you could be excused for wanting to pair this paragon of the sandwich art with frites, I went with the salad, a Caesar-like composition of romaine, baby spinach, red onion, and pine nuts with grated parmesan adding zest. A little Charles Aznavour on the soundtrack, and I would have been transported once again.

But if Aznavour (or Piaf, or Brassens … ) doesn’t do it for you, there’s always Craigslist. I now know that in addition to a lust for every taste, perfectly legitimate places are looking for serious cooks, too. And I also know that, though some folks do read restaurant reviews as a voyeuristic exercise, you really have to experience a place to know it. No lurking allowed.

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