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Review: Martinique Bistro 

Ian McNulty on Martinique's autumnal menu

click to enlarge Chef Eric Labouchere prepares a menu of fall flavors at Martinique. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

We expect seasonal foods at restaurants with a certain level of ambition, and Martinique Bistro fits that bill. At this time of year, the entire operation at this Uptown restaurant seems married to the season.

  A lush patio constitutes probably two-thirds of the restaurant's dining space, and with fall weather Martinique is in full bloom. Its outdoor dining room has never looked better. It is surrounded by ivy-hung walls and capped by a high canopy, and large parties cluster around tables in the cinematically pitched outdoor light. Service is casual, and the scene feels like a party. A new outdoor bar makes it easy to drop in for a few drinks or dishes.

  The restaurant's name refers to the island birthplace of its original chef, who opened Martinique in 1994 and cooked in a French Caribbean style. New owners took over in 2003, however, and island flavors have been phased out. Chef Eric Labouchere has been at the helm for the last few years and while his menu is still cross-cultural, it is French bistro fare infused with contemporary Creole elements.

  Some best bets are pork tenderloin stacked over pancakes of black-eyed peas and blue cheese, and flatiron steak, aromatic from smoked peppercorns and grill char, dressed with chimichurri. The pan-roasted Gulf fish gets "muddy waters" sauce (a tribute to the former Uglesich's Restaurant), which is essentially a meuniere enhanced with jalapenos and anchovies. There's always a vegetarian entree, and a dense, perfectly textured "steak" of tofu under a canopy of greens and goat cheese did not make us miss beef.

  Unfortunately, first courses rarely make such a strong impression. Escargot, mussels and soups are all passable, but neither preparation nor presentation really dazzles. Gnocchi with crawfish tails and tasso had promise but looked like ingredients had been hastily flung at the plate. Salads are flawlessly fresh and more reliable, and one standout appetizer is duck confit sealed with a spice-laden crust that audibly cracks.

  Paired with French toast, duck confit also makes a star turn at brunch, and brunch itself is a Martinique forte. Labouchere's dishes are especially beautiful, especially poached eggs with drum, fat chunks of lobster, chanterelles, hollandaise and edible flowers. This dish sounded too busy, but in fact its components came together as a rich, sweet, creamy, earthy, highly satisfying whole.

  A newer undercurrent comes from South Carolina's Lowcountry, where Labouchere worked for a stretch. It turns up in dishes like sauteed shrimp with shaved okra and roasted corn, and the "benne brittle," a Lowcountry sesame seed candy the chef fuses to roasted duck breast.

  One dish that conveys seasonality more from its flavors and mood than actual ingredients: roasted duck breast with a deep-dark cure on the duck skin and a mouth-coating demi-glace sharpened by cognac seeping into grits. It conjures the feel of fall in the South as surely as the rustling breeze on Martinique's charming patio.

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