Restaurant Review: Bistro St. Michaels
Mar 01, 2018 07:00AM
By Mary Lou Baker
Photography by Tony Lewis, Jr.
Photography by Tony Lewis, Jr.
There’s something magical about this modest little restaurant on the main street of St. Michaels, one of the most charming towns on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Bistro St. Michaels’ unique status as an authentic bistro was established a decade ago, when a French father-son team followed their bliss as chef-owners of the area’s first ethnically-themed eatery. Their legacy has been continued since then by the Pascal family, which includes former Anne Arundel County Executive Robert Pascal and his grandson, Robert A.W. Pascal.
The Pascal Restaurant Group also includes the luxurious St. Michaels Harbour Inn, about a mile from the Bistro. In addition, at this writing there are plans to open Pascal’s Chop House in Severna Park. But in my opinion the jewel in the family crown is the Bistro. I wish it was not just a dinner or weekend brunch destination and was open for lunch, the time when visitors to this unique town—home of the wonderful Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum as well as a collection of specialty shops—could take advantage of its praiseworthy kitchen and welcoming atmosphere.
For the past five years, General Manager Deborah Miller has been graciously greeting patrons who open the handsome wooden door to a foyer enriched with one of the Oriental carpets found throughout the two-story restaurant. We were seated in the front dining area, and from that vantage point watched as Miller greeted a steady stream of guests on a busy Saturday night. She knew many by name. It was the same with a waiter named Gary, who seated an inter-generational group at a round table for six in front of the window. The senior member of the group introduced Gary to the other diners and for awhile I thought he was a family member. But no—that’s just the way it is in this local favorite where the line between staff and patron is nicely blurred.
Staff training pays off, where strangers are just friends the waiters haven’t met yet. We were pleased to meet Thomas, properly formal as he took our wine orders then more relaxed as he gave succinct descriptions of the evening’s off-menu specials (butternut squash soup, a veal chop, a pasta dish) and answered our questions. The menu reflects the “bistro” designation—a simple restaurant serving simple homemade foods.
In Paris, bistros have been known for their inexpensive menus. Not so here, where Eastern Shore native and experienced chef Doug Stewart turns up the heat on the ingredients and the style of his creations. Appetizers fall in the $12–19 range and include a cheese board featuring products from Chapel Creamery in Easton as well as a chicken liver pate and mussels in a tomato-flecked white wine sauce. The menu’s “Petite plates” ($20–25) tempt with a seafood bouillabaisse of rockfish, shrimp, mussels, and clams in a saffron-perfumed tomato broth; seafood gumbo that includes andouille sausage in a hearty mix of shrimp, crab, and mussels; and a one-leg duck confit, a French favorite. Full-on entrees ($25–34) of steak and frites, short rib bourguignonne, pork schnitzel, day boat scallops with a risotto, crab cakes with grits and tomato confit, rack of lamb, and two chef’s specials have all-palate appeal.
"We ended the evening on a high note with a house special dessert of profiteroles filled with salted caramel ice cream drizzled with fudge sauce.”
The message here and the appeal is that you can tailor your own menu with choices that may range between a couple of appetizers, a soup and salad combo, small or large plates, and sides ($5–7) of seasonal vegetables. For our review visit, my companion and I shared a big bowl of impeccably fresh and fat mussels served with a slab of grilled ciabatta to use as a mop for the savory sauce. Next came a slightly different take on Caesar salad, made with dressed spine-on romaine lettuce topped with a thick blend of parmesan cheese, hard-boiled egg, and anchovies. Add to that little, hard croutons. It was a combination that had me wishing for the field greens salad featuring “candied apricots, apple slices, almonds, and mascarpone croutons in a honey yogurt dressing.” What was I thinking?
The arrival of an artistically arranged rack of lamb, the chops stacked to resemble a teepee, cheered me up considerably. The meat was moist and cooked medium rare, a fine foil for the scalloped potatoes, creamed spinach, and assorted wild mushrooms hidden beneath the stacked chops, with an unexpected garnish of fig sauce. Beef bourguignon braised in burgundy and broth is a surefire French favorite, and Chef Stewart brings it home with fork-tender pieces of long-simmered short ribs, cremini mushrooms, and pearl onions in a winey broth textured with pureed potatoes. Kudos to the chef.
Our wine-savvy server was on point with his recommendations of a crisp pinot grigio from San Cipriano ($9) to go with our appetizer of very fresh and plump mussels in a buttery wine broth and a robust pinot noir from Chateau Fage ($11) that paired perfectly with the classic beef bourguignon. He steered us in the right direction by pointing out that there are two by-the-glass lists—one offering four premium reds ($30 a glass) and 3 whites ($22–27), and another with prices in the $11 range.
We ended the evening on a high note with a house special dessert of profiteroles filled with salted caramel ice cream drizzled with fudge sauce and capped with whipped cream. Our tab for two was $147.54, plus a well-deserved tip for Thomas. I am eager for a return visit when I will order the chicken liver pate, the grilled tuna nicoise, and that bountiful five-cheese platter to finish it off—and, of course, a glass or two of wine. Salud!
Mary Lou Baker is a frequent contributor to What’s Up? Media publications and self-professed gourmand. She has authored numerous culinary articles and recently penned the book Seafood Lover’s Chesapeake Bay: Restaurants, Markets, Recipes & Traditions.