Back when Germany and France battled over their borders, Alsace-Lorraine exchanged possession so often that today this region's culture resembles a blend of each. This is the area where chef Rene Bajeux grew up, and its interplay between French technique and the round comfort of spaetzle and sauerkraut, unified by a shared pork fixation, helps define the second iteration of Rene Bistrot.
This version opened in May in the space formerly occupied by La Cote Brasserie, which Bajeux helped open, and it takes its name from the celebrated restaurant Bajeux ran before Hurricane Katrina at the Renaissance Pere Marquette. It is more contemporary and wide-ranging than the original Rene Bistrot (specials sometimes include pho and spring rolls) but the best reasons to dine here remain deeply rooted in tradition.
In fact, a menu section labeled "tradition" is where to find golden nuggets of paneed sweetbreads with a tart, oily sauce grenobloise or stuffed rabbit with sauerkraut redolent of riesling and tarragon, or surprisingly seductive pig's feet, the fatty meat deboned, mixed with herbs and garlic and packaged in phyllo over textbook ratatouille with a mountain of french fries. The best appetizers along these lines are blood sausage, the chef's trademark onion soup and tarte flambee — a cracker-crisp Alsatian-style pizza with raw onions, bacon and fromage blanc, a light, fresh cream cheese resembling ricotta.
The road to this sort of rustic bliss, however, has some ruts. I'll chalk up an overcooked salmon and a mealy-crusted peach cobbler to poor execution. But the trouble started at the conceptual stage for scallops and shrimp with couscous, intensely sharp mustard and a pomegranate sauce as cool and sweet as a smoothie and haltingly out of place.
The sprawling dining room here is virtually unchanged from its previous incarnation as La Cote Brasserie, and it also has inherited some of its predecessor's service issues. The waitstaff is as friendly as can be, but too often seemed unfamiliar with the menu and some of the basics of fine dining. A low point: having to clarify that even though it was I who ordered the bottle of pinot blanc it was fine to pour some for the other diners at the table.
Still, this restaurant presents some wonderfully charismatic food. Roasted sardines, served whole on a sizzling platter, were firm, garlicky and assertive. Short rib a la bourguignonne, a Monday dinner special, should be available every day if only to demonstrate the highest and best use for short ribs, which here surrender their beefy, viscous soul to a sauce that coats buttermilk spaetzle underneath. And the lunch menu's croque madame sandwich — a classic grilled ham and cheese with egg — was completely buttery, melting and bursting with flavor.
For now, Rene Bistrot has excellent regional specialties, alluring potential and some glaring rough spots. Bajeux says new menus are coming for the fall. Count me among those hoping they wend deeper into the chef's traditional home turf.