Wining and dining worth the trip
Food and style draw patrons to Bistro Blanc
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Bistro Blanc? The name of the wine shop and restaurant in rural, wealthy Glenelg comes as a bit of a surprise when I make the establishment's acquaintance. Everywhere I look, I see dark evidence to the contrary: red wines, burnt-orange walls, amber lighting and servers in black uniforms.
Menus appear, prompting more questions. Lamb burgers, crab empanadas and "rustic rabbit" sharing the same page? In a slip of a town (population: 1,721) in Howard County? The skeptic in me shakes his head, while my inner optimist starts ordering dinner in the modern American restaurant.
That rabbit turns out to be a wholly satisfying introduction. Braised with vanilla beans and cinnamon in chicken stock, the meat is slightly sweet. Off the heat, the rabbit is picked from the bone, sauteed with pancetta, enriched with brown butter and garnished with fried sage. Eating the dish, I'm hoping there's more like it. Wish fulfilled: Those empanadas, fashioned from flaky braided wraps and zesty seafood centers, are a welcome addition to the table, too. Served two per plate, the savory pastries are also prettily set off with a biting green salad, a bit of avocado puree and rings of citrus-chili oil. As for the lamb burger, it's a pleaser. Crumbled feta cheese gives the sandwich a Mediterranean lilt, while a toasted brioche bun lends rich support.
The lamb burger begs for a hearty red wine to go with it, and the restaurant obliges. Not only are there 40 selections offered by the glass on the menu, another two dozen are available by the splash, half-glass and five-ounce pour dispensed at a sleek, silver-and-wood Enomatic, a wine-preserving system that takes "charge cards" purchased by customers. Even more options, upward of 300 labels, beckon from the surrounding shelves of the retail component. For a $10 corkage fee, diners can select a bottle to drink in the dining room. (I opt for the 2005 Neyers "Pato Vineyard" zinfandel with the burger and am rewarded with a plummy aroma and black cherry flavor.)
Grape juice is nothing new at this address. Before there was Bistro Blanc, which opened in July 2008, Glenelg Wine & Spirits occupied the space. Both businesses were started by local realtor Rajneesh Kathuria, who recruited Marc Dixon from Cafe de Paris in Columbia to helm the kitchen of what grew into a 65-seat restaurant. (The chef agreed to move if he could design his own work space and menu.)
"Dinner's ready!" I hear a young girl call out to a table near the kitchen as she emerges with a big plate of food for what appear to be relatives. It's early on a Friday night, and Kathuria's 8-year-old daughter, Ishika, and her two siblings have gathered to eat at dad's place. Scattered around the increasingly busy dining room is a rich mix of faces and ages. Kathuria, a frequent presence here, later tells me that he gets customers from as far away as Annapolis, Baltimore and Potomac. It's not just the food that draws them in. With its impressive modern art, copper-colored ceiling and intimate bar, Bistro Blanc weaves style with comfort.
Dixon says, "I'm a big fan of simplicity." In other words, he wants food to taste like what it is. The chef also shows a penchant for pork, which makes a cameo appearance in a number of dishes, and an appreciation for contrasting textures. Otherwise smooth and thick butternut squash risotto gets a crackle from toasted pistachios, for instance, while fork-tender pork shoulder rests on a crisped cushion of brioche. The appetizer, arranged with soft figs in a froth of muscato, is known as "Pig & Fig." Don't miss it. Dixon's favorite entree is mine as well: brined duck breast, given a quick sear before slicing and serving. A salad of lightly pickled julienned carrot crowns the rosy duck, which rests on a square, scallion-laced pancake.
Heaping bowls of french fries keep leaving the kitchen. Eventually, I succumb. Rosemary, parmesan and soft cloves of garlic work their magic on the golden lengths of potato, which are quickly dispatched after they reach the table.
Not all meals are created equal. Brunch was eerily quiet when I dropped by, as if I had entered a mausoleum. Brunch was also under-staffed, with just one server. Is it true, as chef-turned-author Tony Bourdin suggests, that the B-team gets assigned to cook in restaurants on weekend afternoons? An order of duck leg confit, flabby of skin and cold in the center, gave weight to the theory, although the soup of the day was clearly made by someone who knew what he was doing. I can't remember a more elegant, and soothing, chicken noodle soup.
Bistro Blanc's desserts sound as if they were plucked from a banquet room. A happy exception is the lemon meringue tart, flattered with a thin and buttery crust.
Don't expect bread before your meal, not gratis, anyway. What some diners consider their birthright, Dixon sees as resulting in higher menu prices, since the cost of "free" bread is built into the charge for the dishes. (Five years ago, when he was cooking at the Iron Bridge Wine Company in Columbia, he says the restaurant spent $20,000 on complimentary bread.) If you want carbs, order grilled flatbread, either carpeted in smoky roasted mushrooms, gruyere cheese and caramelized onions or (my preference) scattered with crumbled pork sausage, sweet figs and wisps of green. For $4, you can also get sliced bread and three dips.
Honestly, I prefer to drink those kinds of calories at Bistro Blanc. Bread baskets are common; Enomatics, not so much.
Tip for wine drinkers: The best night to visit? Tuesday, when all the retail wine is offered at a 50 percent discount for dinner guests.