Bistro, bistro, bistro, blah, blah, blah. That's sort of what I was hearing by the end of, say, 2008. Now? I don't so much as hear the word "bistro" mentioned by those who chase after what's new. This may be a good thing. After all, it is perhaps the most overused and misused word in the restaurant world. The use of bistro in describing non-French places - Mexican bistro, Indian bistro, Korean bistro, Tuscan bistro, et al - is one of my pet peeves.
Olivier Desaintmartin, owner/chef of Zinc and Caribou Cafe, shares my frustration. "It's used to name every kind of restaurant. 'Bistro' is like a magic word," he said. "The true French bistro still needs to be owned by a French chef, because we grew up with this cuisine. We know all the stories behind it because our mothers made those dishes."
For me, "bistro" means a specific, yet hard-to-define type of place. Sure, it's French, but it can't do the haute cuisine thing - so, no, Le Bec-Fin and Lacroix are not bistros. It must serve wine, beer and cocktails, and so a BYOB can never really be a bistro. Even a place like Bibou, good as it is, cannot be a bistro.
It probably has mirrors and chalkboards and a zinc bar and tilework. It should also have several of the following totally Frenchy items on the menu: pate, escargots, cassoulet, skate, frog's legs, steak tartare, game, organ meat and foie gras. In other words, a true bistro is a prime candidate for bullhorn-wielding animal-rights activists.
When many Americans hear about dishes like escargots and frog's legs, they immediately get their back up. These are, after all, the age-old cartoonish clichés of Fussy French Food. But that's a shame. Like most bistro staples, these are just examples of the honest, simple, hearty food, what Desaintmartin likens to "good, soulful diner food."
I hadn't been to any of the city's bistros for a while, but Desaintmartin recently hired a new chef, Nanina Scriber, at Zinc, his 38-seat neighborhood bistro. Scriber previously spent 10 years cooking in French kitchens in New York, most recently at Alain Ducasse's bistro Benoit. It made me curious, so I used my visit to Zinc as the impetus to revisit a number of the city's bistros.
Well, the proliferation of bistros may have passed, but I'm happy to report that those launched back in the heyday still thrive. If, for some reason, you have never eaten the escargots or the pate en croute or the truite meunière or braised rabbit at Bistrot La Minette - or if you haven't done so in a while - a trip to Peter Woolsey's Queen Village boite should be a priority.
I also still like Vintage. Both its dishes and its wine list can be hit or miss, but I always enjoy the steak frites there, and it's not a bad place for someone's first time eating escargots. Even Parc has its moments, especially on a busy, warm evening when you can people-watch the Botoxed, valet-parked Rittenhouse crowd.
Though, I have to say, $140 for a dozen oysters, appetizers of steak tartare and salmon rillette, and an overpriced bottle of wine doesn't seem like a very good value.
However, the best bistro meal I had over the past few weeks, possibly the most memorable meal I've had all year, was the pressed wild duck two-course special prepared tableside at Zinc. At $78 for two people, it's not cheap. And you have to order it at two days in advance. But the experience is worth it.
I've known Desaintmartin for a long time, and I know how much the man enjoys his game meats. Several years ago, for a travel magazine article, I accompanied him to his hometown in the hardscrabble Picardy region of France to explore its primal, down-home cuisine. I went with his family on boar and wild hare hunts, ate horse meat and tiny thrush (head, beak and all) and watched his mother rip the fur from a bloody, just-shot hare while dressed in her Sunday finest.
So I was not at all surprised by the tableside process, though it may make some diners a little squeamish. After carving off the roasted duck's breasts, legs and wings, the chef cuts up the remaining carcass and places it into a gleaming, ornate 19th-century silver press. The press is cranked and the carcass pulverized to a pulp.
The dark, bloody liquid that comes pouring out is flambéd, along with a little brandy, reduced, then used to cover the duck breasts, roasted potatoes and caramelized onions. That's the first course. So simple, and yet probably the most intense, profound rendition of duck I've ever tasted. Paired with a big red from Madiran, the depth and succulent gaminess of the dish seems to emanate from another time and age.
The second course - the duck's legs and wings grilled and served over a salad - is also flavorful, but lighter and more like a segue out of whatever decadent duck revelries I was having about the first course.
"You're eating the duck in his own juices," Desaintmartin said. "To me, that's respecting the animal. You're using everything. And there's nothing else added. You order a duck, you get a duck. You order a hare, you get a hare. Nowadays, you go somewhere and, say, order tuna, and what do you get? Four ounces of tuna and then a bunch of b------- around it."
For me, this attitude is the very essence of the bistro.