Another day, another bistro, right? Seems you can't pick up this newspaper without reading about an ambitious new bistro banking on a tidal wave of good cheer. Invariably, these gastro-pads are helmed by accomplished chef-owners, adhere to a strict ingredient-driven greenmarket mentality and boast menus sprinkled with phrases like "house-cured," "fresh-baked" and "just churned."
While a surfeit of quality is always a good problem to have, there is a certain measure of homogeny descending upon the Cleveland food scene. At first blush, Bistro on Lincoln Park, in the space vacated by Sage Bistro two years ago, fits that mold to a tee. Opened by Pete Joyce, longtime executive chef at Blue Point Grille, the trendy boite employs classic French technique to twist today's freshest ingredients into creations both traditional and contemporary. Even the space, with its blonde-wood floors, sage-brushed walls and bland impressionist paintings, reminds one of a thousand other eateries.
But take the time to get to know BOLP and a less predictable identity begins to emerge. Featured alongside the now-ubiquitous gratinées, confits and frites are blinis, bologneses and black beans. You see, this bistro is not bound by Gallic convention; its culinary borders extend to Spain, Italy and beyond.
Since Sage closed its doors, scores of chefs have toyed with taking over the prominent Tremont space. Joyce, a respected industry vet, was the first to pull the trigger. Always an attractive restaurant, Sage needed little more than a warm body and a fresh coat of paint to bring it back to life. The kitchen, on the other hand, has been pimped out with all the latest gear.
In a down economy, bread baskets often are the first casualty. That, or they come with a tariff. Not so here. This bistro bakes its own fine rolls and serves them with plenty of creamery-fresh butter. What's more, on most nights, diners are treated to a kicky little amuse-bouche.
One's first hint that all is not burgers and frites comes in the form of a chorizo blini appetizer ($7). Bursting with the Latin flavors of smoked sausage, sharp Manchego cheese and pert pickled cabbage, the dish advertises the chef's range. Scallops, while lovely when fresh, can be about as thrilling as a snail race. Joyce ups the excitement of his scallop app ($11) by pairing the sizeable seared bivalves with a homey corn soufflé. A bed of buttery leeks adds acidic balance.
The only thing that would improve the warm goat-cheese tartlet ($9) is a crust with more snap. OK, any snap. Still, the velvety goat-cheese filling set against the tangy tapenade topping makes for dynamic taste interplay. While we're nitpicking: The French onion soup ($6), on one visit, suffered from an oily broth that coated both the spoon and our taste buds. Salads here are no mere addendum. Composed with grace and anointed by dressings more akin to elixirs than vinaigrettes, these dinner interludes deserve a place in every meal. The Bistro's take on frisee aux lardon ($8) swaps the frilly ferns for dandelion greens and ties together the house-cured bacon, toothsome croutons and poached egg with a fragrant lavender-honey dressing.
Yes, most bistros turn out reliably satisfying renditions of hanger-steak frites ($19) and peppery steak au poivre ($27), and this one is no exception. But for dyed-in-the-wool carnivores, these dishes offer something no other restaurant can - Joyce's wickedly good fries. Brittle-crisp, aggressively salty and ethereally airy, the frites also escort a lush coq au vin ($15), the poultry stained dark from red wine. The highlight of the pork entrée ($17) is not the sufficiently juicy pork loin, but the side of celery-root gnocchi. Like outsized spaetzle, the squished and sautéed blobs sop up the delicate sauce. Sous vide cookery is praised for the extremely succulent results it produces in meat and fish, and Joyce's sous vide salmon ($19) is a nice example. Though a last-minute sear undoes much of that effort, most fish fans will find the texture delightfully appealing. Equally appealing is the accompanying salmon "sushi" - salmon-stuffed cabbage leaves that mimic Japanese maki. BOLP churns its own ice cream ($4), and when paired with the still-warm chocolate chip cookies ($5), it feels like the chef has bundled you up in a Snuggie.
Most glasses on the Bistro's wine list are north of $9, and until recently, many bottle prices began with a "5." If your server, like ours, neglects to mention the "20 under $20" list, ask.