(2010) Downtown Sarasota’s popular Bijou Café is a charming example of old school done right.
The mostly abstract art that graces the latté-colored walls of the main dining room sets the tone of understated sophistication. It’s engaging but not intrusive. The paintings and other works on paper and cloth morph into ideal dining companions, expressive but well-mannered.
The same might be said of service, which is expert and unobtrusively attentive. Waiters know their menu and their kitchen, offering excellent advice when asked. The basket of fresh hot rolls that accompanies aperitifs or appetizers arrives on the dot and disappears just as punctually. Water and wine glasses are recharged at just the right moment, and the interval between courses is exemplary, allowing one to properly savor one dish before the next arrives. Even on a night when every table in the main room and in two cozy side rooms is full, grace prevails.
The menu is intelligently designed, both in terms of culinary balance and information delivery. The list of wines by the glass occupies an interior flap, giving everyone easy access without having to pass the cellar book around, and the chef’s daily specials are on a card tucked into a corner of the starters page. This attention to detail is typical of Bijou Café and got our recent evening at table off to a fine start. We were favorably impressed before we so much as buttered a roll.
We shared a split of an inexpensive French sparkler ($7) and decided on the trio of patés ($15) to begin, although the handmade raviolis tempted us, as house pastas always do. The paté sampler—a super-rich duck liver mousse under a light layer of aspic, coarse country pork paté and smooth mushroom terrine, accompanied by salad greens, crunchy cornichons and toast—proved instantly to have been the right choice. This is definitely a plate to share unless one’s appetite is of lumberjack dimensions.
It was a pleasant chore to select a wine within our budget from an impressive wine list tipped heavily toward high-end bottles, but we succeeded splendidly with a 2005 Hess Allomi Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon at $38. This wine is a complex, edgy cab with a wonderful bitter chocolate finish, just right with the assertive flavors of our main dishes.
Colette chose one of her longtime favorites, lamb shank ($25), which Bijou braises on the bone to a tender turn, sauces in its natural juices and serves with creamy mashed potatoes and toothsome fat coins of caramelized carrot. Both her lamb and my main dish were of the same heroic proportions as the paté sampler, the leftovers serving nicely as our next day’s lunch.
The restaurant styles its jambalaya ($24) as a signature dish, so I felt compelled to give it a whirl. I was in luck. Bijou’s version of the Cajun country classic is outstanding, combining bites of Tasso ham and mildly spiced sausage with chucks of tender chicken breast and half a dozen sweet shrimp in a genuine dark and savory New Orleans roux-thickened gravy flavored with filé, the distinctive spice made from sassafras leaves. Serve it with rice and a spoon, as they do here, and you have a hearty dish to remember.
Many swoon-inducing desserts, including a giddily liquorous version of bananas Foster, are offered for a final course, as are artisanal cheeses, cognacs, coffee drinks, cordials and small batch bourbons. We had chosen such rich dishes that we decided the time had come to be judicious and so shared a chalice of perfect blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and sliced strawberries gently kissed with a Grand Marnier-scented sabayon and a soupçon of whipped cream ($8). Mmmm.
It’s easy to see why Bijou is a perennial favorite of opera and theater goers, as well as of Sarasotans seeking to entertain out-of-town visitors in style.
1287 First St., Sarasota
Reservations: (941) 366-8111
Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5 p.m. until close Monday-Saturday
Cards: VISA, MC, AmEx, Discover
Wine list and full bar; outdoor seating available
Handicapped accessible: yes
Parking: complimentary valet or on street