Food & Drink » Wine & Dine Review

Change of Heart

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When the 90-seat Bistro East opened last summer on East Boulevard in Dilworth, the buzz around town was what a great job the architect and owners had done. The new mixed brick facade oozed with charm. The patio beckoned passersby to drop by and have a beer. This welcome change was not surprising since the restaurant is co-owned by Steve Harris, who as one of the original owners of SouthEnd's Guytano's, converted an old brick warehouse into a stylish restaurant. The interior of Bistro East was designed by Sherrie Harris (no relation to Steve Harris) and features rough golden walls and lots of oak. The 12-seat bar area is separated from one dining area by a glass paned oak wall. The back dining area contains spacious booths and a few tables. The restaurant blossoms to life with the vibrant artwork of Michelle Kingery. The only intrusion upon this coziness is the brilliant florescent light emanating from the open kitchen, but this can be remedied. For decades this site was Wad's Sundries, a popular destination where, years ago kids from Myers Park High School used to go for orangeade after practice, and which only five years ago earned a Creative Loafing "Best Of 1996" award for Best Hot Dog in town. When Bistro East opened a few months ago, two of the co-owners were Steve Farmer and Chef Charles Rucker, both from Myers Park Country Club. But on November 14, Paul T. Verica, a new chef and partner, came on board when Rucker and Farmer departed. From that date to December 3, Verica used the original menu. But on December 4, he not only changed the menu, but the culinary direction. The former menu had pizzas and buffalo wings and strangely configured entrees. I have tried food from both menus and the one in current use far surpasses the former menu. The new menu, which is planned to change seasonally, will breathe life into the place. Historically, French bistros provided a place where both the rich and the regular folk could dine in the same place and unite in their love of food. Dishes were often traditional favorites, the atmosphere was casual, and the conversation flowed as freely as the wine. From the looks of the new menu, Verica wants this to be true. His experience comes from a culinary school in Philadelphia and an apprenticeship in L'Arpege, a restaurant in the 7th Arrondissement of Paris, and in another restaurant in La Cote d'Or. Before coming to Bistro East, Verica was Chef and General Manager at Providence Bistro at Ballantyne. Verica doesn't seem to have culinary baggage to shed in order to concentrate on dishes which are flavorful, but not overly ambitious. This is a bistro, after all. Diners just want good food. The smoked salmon entree I had from the original menu was conflicted. Smokiness, black peppercorns, rice cakes, and slivers of roasted red peppers were all mumble jumbled on the plate. And this is where the restaurant was in trouble: the kitchen was trying to have it both ways. The menu seemed to want to attract a sophisticated crowd, but the execution was skewed towards the timid palate where the big taste thrill was coming from the heavy handedness of heat-seeking peppers. The new entree selections, on the other hand, are something to sink your teeth into. The best was the rolled North Carolina mountain trout filets wrapped in apple-wood smoked bacon riding a wave of mashed potatoes, studded with country ham and mushroom gravy. The dish, decidedly Carolinian, flowed like a third glass of Veuve Clicquot. The salmon entree showed vast improvement. On the new menu the salmon freed itself from the hook of black peppers and smokiness, and the underlying gumminess of a rice cake. This time, however, a brief taste scrimmage ensued between the horseradish in the mashed potatoes and the densely sweet meat of the fish. There is a reason most people don't think of horseradish and salmon in the same sentence. The fresh tasting watercress and endive salad with slices of apples and pears, crumbled blue cheese, and toasted walnuts was a standout. The chef has also banished the too-thick Parmesan shell from the Caesar and opted for crisp Parmesan wafers. On the first visit I tried the banana bread pudding, which was very Southern tasting, and the chocolate peanut butter pie which was overly sweet as the name would imply. In the past some of the desserts were bought and not house made, but Verica informed me that all desserts would be now made in house. On the second visit the wine list had not changed yet, although a new wine list will debut this month. "I want to concentrate on the under $40 bottles," Verica says. He plans to have a list which will contain about 45 bottles, primarily Californian but some European and Australian. Bistro East will continue to offer a wine flight and wines by the glass as well. The new winter lunch menu features salads including two crab cakes on mixed greens, a grilled beef tenderloin on mixed greens with horseradish dressing and sandwiches such as a burger with a choice of ground beef, tuna, or portabella mushroom, a smoked turkey wrap, and a roasted vegetable hero plus pastas. Lunch prices range from $4 to $11. At dinner, entrees are $13 to $19 and pasta and sandwiches are $7 to $14. The triumphs of my more recent visit to Bistro East make me dare to hope the kitchen is finding its strength. While this may not be the traditional French bistro home cooking (even if sauteed calves liver and a grilled tuna steak nicoise appear on the menu), the reinvented Bistro East embodies unpretentious cooking with a serious, albeit inevitably, Southern bent.

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