Like his predecessors, Greg Picolo made a name for himself working from the Bistro's small kitchen, won a loyal following of regulars in its cozy dining room and eventually opened his own restaurant. The twist with Picolo's story, however, is that his own restaurant is the Bistro itself.
The Bistro first opened in 1986 under the ownership of the nine-room French Quarter hotel in which it is located. When it reopened after Hurricane Katrina, Picolo was back at the kitchen's helm. But in June 2006, hotel management decided to close the Bistro until some unspecified later date. Months passed and seasons changed. Its charismatic maitre d', Patrick Van Hoorebeck, got a job at another restaurant, and last fall the James Beard Foundation posted a short obituary for the Bistro on its culinary news Web page. It certainly seemed like curtains for the Bistro.
Behind the scenes, however, Picolo and a business partner were working up a new deal. If hotel management didn't want to reopen the Bistro, they would buy it and run it themselves. The hotel changed hands in the intervening months, stalling things a bit, but Picolo kept at his plans. He was finally able to buy and reopen the Bistro in May.
Those who know and enjoy Picolo's cuisine will be relieved to find that the reins of ownership have done nothing to tone him down while newcomers have an adventurous romp ahead of them. His cooking is dominated by a technique that layers flavors and ingredients in often unorthodox ways. The effect is sometimes too subtle and conversely sometimes too jarring, but usually it produces highly original and compelling dishes.
The salmon salad is one rewarding example. Built around flaked slabs of salt-crusted smoked salmon and a white remoulade sauce, the dish gets better with each bite as other ingredients work their way into the mix. When the poached egg and the peppery roe fully get to blend with the fresh, slightly bitter frisee greens, the spicy, smoky, salty, creamy concoction is in full bloom. With another appetizer, a portobello mushroom cap provides the shell for a gratin of oysters and escargot, an inspired combination of textures and flavors shifting from earthy to marine.
The Bistro's menu is small. One of the six entres is always a Gulf fish, usually drum, paired with a hearty helping of crab and cheese cannelloni. More interesting is Picolo's "duck sampler," anchored by slices of smoky duck breast, plus seared foie gras that goes especially well with the grilled peaches and a tender confit that can be easily coaxed into juicy strands with the fork, like good barbecue.
My favorite entre here is the grilled scallops served with an equal portion of Italian sausage, which Picolo gets from the butcher counter at Terranova's Supermarket near his home. This is the best Italian sausage in the city, aromatic with fennel, pepper and garlic, and it pairs beautifully with the firm meatiness of the lightly-charred scallops. An assertive broth with saffron and roasted corn picks up more flavor from sauted arugula and moistens a dome of risotto at the center of this wonderfully rustic yet intricate dish.
The chef's method falls a little flat with the rack of lamb. The idea is to pair the meat with some sharp Stilton, but Picolo does so by baking the cheese into his version of macaroni and cheese. Made with BB-sized Israeli couscous, it is irresistible by itself. But confined to its ramekin it leaves the lamb on its own with an underwhelming pineapple sauce.
One of the more provocative dishes here, a lunch-only offering, is a duck-peanut butter-pepper jelly-fontina cheese sandwich that is too elaborate for its own good. The chunks of smoked duck were delicious and the slick of pepper jelly added a nice dose of sweet heat, but the sticky, crunchy peanut butter just got in the way. The old reliable on the reasonably priced lunch menu is the Belgian-style steamed mussels with thin, crispy fries and mayonnaise. The broth is a simple butter, garlic, parsley and wine concoction that is perfect.
The best of the otherwise straightforward desserts is a chocolate brownie with a layer of cappuccino-flavored cream cheese resting in a pool of chocolate mocha and tequila "soup." Extraordinarily rich and best if split several ways, you approach this dessert by calving off chunks of the brownie to soak in the soup, which is mellowed by the tequila without tasting too boozy.
The waiters can mix a worthy Sazerac, but the bar is still woefully under-stocked on the type of liquors that would really polish a glow on a good meal here. The wine list is much better, however, and is widely varied. It also includes many very good bottles priced under $30 and even a few under $20.
A big part of the Bistro's appeal is its intimate environs. The dining room is tiny, slender and gorgeous, recalling the type of urbane hideaway usually seen in foreign films or in dreams for those of us who have detailed dreams about restaurants. All the tables are very close together, yet somehow the feeling is more of bonhomie than claustrophobia. This is a room that actually becomes more romantic when there is a healthy bustle. Still, on the right day the best seats in the house are in the hotel's courtyard. Bourbon Street, a mere half-block away, seems a world away when sitting outside looking up at the old roof lines, chimney pots and swaying tropical fronds.