At a time when too many restaurant marquees are decorated with signs offering the premises for sale or lease, a small and very welcome miracle has occurred at 1962 Hillview St. in Southside Village. That’s the address where 62 Bistrot recently opened and is receiving guests with genuine French hospitality.
This cozy place is the kind I always hope I’ll find, but rarely do, when someone confides that he has stumbled upon a really authentic little French restaurant I should visit before the secret gets out. I can’t afford a vacation in France this year, but an evening at 62 Bistrot has the feel and savor of a bistro on its home ground.
That “b” word has been tossed about with abandon, having been attached to everything from cafes to brasseries to full-scale restaurants. Properly used, it names an unassuming establishment that specializes in French comfort food and wine at affordable prices, often in a neighborhood setting. A bistro
is always a low-key enterprise offering a limited menu of traditional dishes turned out with skill and care. Spelled with a “t” at the end, as in this case, the word might be translated as something akin to pub, but one with the emphasis on food and wine instead of beer and darts.
At dinner, the menu follows the French form, offering two courses for a fixed price of $18.90: a starter or salad and main dish. At 62 Bistrot, this adds up to a very good deal.
We began with two classics: a country paté for Colette and escargots for me. The snails carried a $2 surcharge I was happy to pay for such tender little morsels bathed in heavenly butter, garlic and herbs. (The snails were the only item on that evening’s menu that carried a surcharge, and that fact was clearly stated up front.)
Colette’s paté, this one in a style hailing from the Champagne region, was a delight to both the eye and the palate. Flanked on a small plate by slices of perfectly ripe plum tomato, it was topped with a garnish of carved cornichons. The paté itself was light, lively and luscious, just right for a starter.
Ten main dishes plus a special included such stalwarts as beef Bourguignon, stewed in red wine sauce, and chicken Normande, pairing chicken breast flamed in cognac with mushrooms in a white sauce. The day’s special on our visit was a mini bouillabaisse.
Colette chose pork medallions Marco Polo, which sauces tender slices of pork in black pepper and cognac, while I opted for a dish simply called “fish sauce chef.” I chose flounder for this prep but could have selected cod or tilapia had either been more to my taste.
These dishes had two critical things in common. First, the main ingredient in each was fresh, of high quality and flawlessly cooked. Second, the sauces were executed by an artist.
To say that the pork was sauced in pepper and cognac gives no hint of the alchemy practiced in the kitchen. Those two basics were unmistakably—and deliciously—present, but however did the chef manage to introduce cream and keep the sauce so celestially light? My fish with mushrooms, flamed in vodka, was seasoned with a medley of Italian herbs and sauced in a dreamy, creamy tomato-based sauce.
Main dishes are accompanied by one’s choice of potatoes gratin Dauphinois, rice or veggies. Colette, her usual culinary insight serving her well, chose ratatouille, which complemented her pork nicely. I, on the other hand, have never met a good creamy potato dish I didn’t like. I was very pleased to make this one’s acquaintance.
Another hallmark of both bistro and bistrot is good wines well priced by the glass. 62 Bistrot also offers a nice selection of bottles, but we were feeling traditional and so opted for house wines, a glass of the red Bordeaux for Colette and of the white Bordeaux for me ($7.50 each). Nice.
Now, to the crêpes, a specialty of the house. Sweet dessert crêpes are on offer at dinner and savory buckwheat crêpes at lunch. For our desserts we chose two classics of the form: sugary, orangey Suzette for me and pear-rich Normande for Colette. The little pancakes themselves were just right and the stuffings all they should be. Hers was flamed in cognac, his in Grand Marnier. The alcohol may have gone up in flames, but the liqueurs’ rich, aromatic essences perfumed every giddy bite of the toothsome finishers.
We haven’t visited for either breakfast or lunch, but both are prominent on our dining to-do list. It also is pleasant to note that if Southside Village is not near you, the same folks run Paris Bistrot in Lakewood Ranch and Island Crêperie in Bradenton Beach and offer the same menu at all three locations. Isn’t that sweet?
1962 Hillview St., Sarasota
Reservations (recommended for dinner): (941) 954-1011
Wines by the glass or bottle
Hours: Breakfast and lunch, 8:30 a.m.-2 p.m. every day; dinner 5:30-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Cards: Visa, MasterCard,
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Parking: On street
Warmly authentic French bistro features fixed-price two-course dinners, good wines by the glass, celestial sauces and mouthwatering crêpes, sweet for dessert and savory for lunch. Everything is priced right. Go now.
The Sun House Shines
From its many-windowed space on the third floor of a building at the corner of Gulf Drive and Bridge Street in Bradenton Beach, The Sun House offers diners lovely views of the Gulf of Mexico. If you have guests who just can’t get enough of the big water in our back yard, this is a fine place to take them for sunset views and sundowners.
The style of cooking here is that hybrid that has come to be known as Floribbean, blending signature Florida ingredients with the jazzy flavors of the Caribbean. Fish figures prominently, but dishes like a java-rubbed ribeye steak with bleu cheese mashed potatoes, chipotle onion rings and mango chutney lend admirable variety.
We arrived for dinner about a half hour before sunset and were lucky enough to score one of the two best tables in the house for water views. We might have chosen a table on the deck with even better views, had it not been a bit windy for that option. We settled in with cocktails to admire the multi-colored sky over the Gulf and parsed
For starters we shared an order of pork and veggie potstickers ($7.99) and something called island tuna carpaccio ($6.99), a house specialty. The potsticker dumplings were nicely browned, comfortably stuffed and tasty. The carpaccio, alas, was more over the top than innovative, the raw tuna basically disappearing under a blizzard of fried capers, mango, bell pepper, garlic-chive oil and drizzled wasabi aioli. Sometimes less is more.
We chose seafood for our main courses, Colette trying another house specialty, Grassy Key grouper ($18.99 half order; $26.99 full order), while I plumped for a sea scallops special ($18).
This house specialty really worked. Firm fresh grouper was beautifully accompanied by shrimp and asparagus under a delicious Key lime beurre blanc, accented by yummy garlic dill mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach. A very fine combination, indeed. My scallops also were fresh and firm, done to a turn and nicely set off by a creamy truffled risotto. Both main dishes were prettily decorated with orchid blossoms.
For dessert we shared a high, wide and handsome slice of passion mango cheesecake ($7), the two tropical fruit flavors conspiring to show the light and creamy cheesecake to good advantage.
The Sun House has a full bar plus a wine list, from which we chose a well-priced ($25) bottle of one of our go-to seafood wines, a zingy Cupcake Vineyards sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.
The Sun House Restaurant & Bar
111 Gulf Drive S., Bradenton Beach
Reservations: (941) 782-1122
Full bar plus wine list
Hours: 2-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday,
’til 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Cards: Visa, MasterCard, Discover,
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Parking: In lot or on street
An editor, writer and online publisher, John Bancroft has reviewed restaurants, books, movies and music for many magazines, websites and newspapers, most recently for the St. Petersburg Times.
What I’m Drinking
Wines to spice up your Turkey Day.
A decade ago I had a pat answer when asked to recommend a Thanksgiving wine. Taste your wineseller’s top three recommendations for that year’s releases of Beaujolais nouveau, and serve the one you like best. But when beau nouveau, a light red wine as quaffable as Kool-Aid, became pretentious and pricey, I started recommending California old vines zinfandels and Oregon pinot noirs and Australian shirazes.
A couple of years ago I began alternating that boilerplate with a pitch for sparkling wines that could be drunk from aperitif right through to dessert. My faves remain Veuve Cliquot Brut Champagne (from France; a.k.a. The Yellow Label), Segura Viudas ARIA Estate Brut Cava (Spain), Gruet Methode Champenoise Brut (New Mexico) and Santa Margherita brut Prosecco (Italy).
This year I’m more inclined to push the envelope. I’m touting value wines that offer saucy counterpoint to turkey’s soothing mildness. From Austria I’m tapping Höpler Grüner Veltliner, a palate-cleansing pale straw-colored wine with a citrus and mineral edge and a fine dry finish. From Spain’s Rias Baxias region I like Martín Códax Albariño, a subtly robust, citrusy, lightly floral white wine that goes beautifully with food. My list of favorite sauvignon blancs from New Zealand’s Marlborough district is long, but a particularly good value—a lively wine hopping with gooseberry and grapefruit zing—comes from Cupcake Vineyards. Finally, from California’s Mendocino Valley comes a brand-new favorite in the form of Toad Hollow unoaked chardonnay, Francine’s Selection, a steel-fermented dry and vivacious beauty redolent of sun-warmed peaches and Meyer lemon with just the slightest hint of vanilla.