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An Authentic Bistro Experience

Nov 26, 2013 09:31AM ● By Cate Reynolds
An Authentic Bistro Experience
By Gail Greco // Photos by Tony Lewis, Jr.

In everyday France, the bistro is woven into the pattern of eating and meeting with friends…even strangers. Comfort foods served in a casual atmosphere are what Francophiles love to talk about. Across the Atlantic, in everyday life on our Eastern Shore, a bistro is more a second thought than a fact of life. But when done well—a la Bistro St. Michaels—it is hard to forget.

Bistro’s new owners, Rob and Caroline Pascal, found much remaining just as the well-respected former owners had left it 18 months earlier. Chef coats still dangled from kitchen hooks—hollow symbols of the “shoes” the Pascals would have to fi ll for diners who missed their bistro with the hunger of an Edith Piaf fan wanting to hear another performance of La Vie En Rose.

Under a starry midnight-in-Paris sky, Bistro St. Michaels reopened in March, showcasing the art of the bistro alive again on Rue Talbot, as fine a bistro as one abroad. Set tables on the front porch of a 19th century main street house beckon diners to the chic, cozy bistro that embodies a hint of romance and the poetry of homey food that proves a great value for the price.

Inside, the décor pops from the kissing canes-backed wooden seats that seem to strike the interior of many bistros here and abroad. Muted-orange sponged walls host an art-deco salon vibe, while life-sized posters and three large black-milled mirrors mounted in a row in the Bistro’s trademark hallway dining room are lit softly with a wrought-iron clock chandelier, which hangs midway like a mini-version of something you would see in the Impressionist paintings of French train stations.

We had never met our dining partners, who arrived just behind us, coming from Annapolis to eat at Bistro again, but reserving their enthusiasm so as not to bias. It was hard for them to hold back the “wows,” though, for Essex, England-raised Executive Chef David Hayes’s Old World kitchen.

The main ingredient of a genuinely splendid bistro anywhere, and what makes each one so individual, is the chef ’s passion and whether—and how and if—it transfers to each diner’s plate. It does here. Chef Hayes’ food is approachable French with locally sourced ingredients cooked with modern sensibilities. He needs clean ingredients to deliver his craft, which he also sees as “educating diners about what real food really tastes like.”

“Cooking as local as possible needs little coaxing; the flavors do the convincing on their own,” he says. I thought immediately of the supremely Eastern Shore collaboration of corn and seafood in the chef ’s succotash with day boat scallops our friends still brag about from their first Bistro encounter.

With us, they noshed first on tangy breaded artichoke hearts with a variety of rolls: mustard-and-caraway, honey oat, and sesame-poppy seed. I eyed the cheese board from local dairy farm Chapel’s Country Creamery of Easton, listed under “To Share”—so bistro of them—and imprinted on an easy-to-handle and read cardboard menu of lacey French jacquard weave stamped behind nouveau typeface. A rare Ahi Tuna crunches with vegetables and wontons in an Asian ginger marinade and is among the other appetizers, like steamed mussels in a garlic-shallot saffron-and-fennel cream broth. I debated the crepe confit of smoked duck with green onions in an orange reduction or the apple-and-bay blue organic lettuce with walnuts, and found the latter a most buttery crisp starter.

Image titleI chose a personal favorite of the chef ’s for my entrée—the sage-and-onion roasted chicken (from a Pennsylvania farm) served with toasty brussel sprouts. I was transported to unforgettable meals I ate in Paris years before we in America were dangling words like “free-range” and “pasture-grazed.” The fresh pasta du jour was lasagna with a cheesy béchamel sauce and grass-fed beef served in a personal-sized crock, which we tasted from my husband’s bowl, all longing for another bite. Our Annapolis friends chose in-season crab cakes in a lemon caper sauce and a special Chesapeake caught flounder (cooked imperial)—a dish they were wise to order since the fish run only at whim in the Bay.

Our new friends wished they had room to again enjoy Bistro’s signature gumbo, for which they could finally no longer hold back the superlatives. So we sent for the lidded cassoulet bowlful and the rice as a separate timbale— one of the best balanced gumbos this side of the French Quarter. The gumbo, a French onion soup, and a salad, or house-cured bacon macaroni and cheese, invite those wanting just a bistro bite and not a full-course meal.

Another hallmark of a bistro is small tables for intimate conversations, as bistros tend to be on the buoyant side, with engaging enough chit-chat to make you forget where you are (really) until the wine list suggests maybe California or France, with Barolos, Bordeaux, and Crus bringing you back to earthy terroir. I chose a glass of Block 9 Pinot Noir from Napa, which went well with all of what I ate except dessert, during which I was more after a cup of another kind to go with a demitasse-sized trio of crème brulee: lemon, espresso, and traditional burnt custard.

Our new friends were right on that the tiramisu is “unlike any you have had before,” as it is more of a blended espresso drink—meaning the cake had no boundaries once it hit my palate. I only resisted the Route 33 salted brownies because I buy them right from the baker (as does Chef Hayes) at the weekly St. Michael’s FreshFarm market. Rich like a chocolate truffle, Bistro serves them warm with vanilla soy milk and a chocolate chip cookie.

The brownies also punctuate the chef ’s sustainable philosophy echoed by the Pascals (also owners of the successful St. Michaels Harbour Inn, Marina and Spa), who have indeed filled Bistro St. Michaels’ old shoes with new “souls.”

Gail Greco is a food and home interiors writer and photo art director/stylist. Author of 16 cookbooks and TV producer/host for the Discovery Channel and PBS, she is a culinary knowledge partner at Yahoo and chef/editor of the DuPont Tefl on cooking website, where she writes a column called “Overheard at the Bistro.” She lives and works on the Eastern Shore and in Sarasota, Fla.

Bistro St. Michaels
403 S. Talbot St., St. Michaels
Appetizers: $9-$17
Entrees: $19-$35