Thursday, November 10, 2011

New 'Hood, New Food: A few offal meals at Bon Appetit Cafe

Tucked into a non-descript mall in the Wilton center, Bon Appetit Café is an authentic French bistro where fine ingredients and expert cooking technique rule the day. A few of the very few people we know around here told us the “little French place” near the Stop and Shop is surprisingly good. Armed with one of the few endorsements we’ve heard of any local restaurant, I figured I had to give it a try. We walked by on one of our first days in town and I remember thinking the menu looked expensive for the location, décor, and generally relaxed vibe. So I decided to give the place a whirl for lunch to test the waters for not as much money. Expecting to grab an easy sandwich (had my eye on the Pan Bagna which includes tuna, anchovies, tomato, green pepper, olives, eggs, mesclun greens, and mustard dressing), I ended up lured to the specials menu with its mention of three, count 'em, THREE offal dishes. Decisions, decisions. Choices were liver, kidneys, or tripe. I had a hunch the tripe might be the harder to find again of the bunch, so I jumped at it.
The dish was just perfect on a cold day. It was a bowl of piping hot, tomatoey broth with some actual peeled tomatoes, some perfectly white potato chunks, and a healthy serving of tripe. The broth had nice weight to it and had a deep, lasting spiciness. The tripe was so clean and cut down to bite-sized slivers. I did a little searching to learn tripe is characterized into three groups: the omasum (leaf tripe), the reticulum (the honeycomb tripe that is most visually memorable), and the rumen (the smooth and flat type). Best I could tell, the dish included all three types. Each ended up imparting its own particular texture. Most memorably, the reticulum’s texture was two-fold. The ridge piece was firm and dense, while the honeycomb part was light and soft and a little spongy (in a good way). The rumen was smooth and soft and evenly textured. The taste was uniquely tripe. It is difficult to really describe or pinpoint, but there was nothing foul or poopy about this tripe’s flavor. The baguette slices accompanying the meal were some of the best I’ve had. The crust was crunchy like it should be and the center was ideally dense and soft. Plenty of the bread allowed me to sop up all broth in the bowl. It was definitely a meal lacking in refreshing or light vegetables, but most offal dishes don’t really strive for balance between heavy and light. 

The vibe and atmosphere at the place is perfectly French. French television piping through the small TV in the corner. Occassional bickering among the staff (in an amusing, not off-putting, way). And the man in charge (definitely the chef, but I’m not sure if he is the owner) is a short French fellow with the ragged, raspy, throaty voice of a hardened cook. Ultimately friendly and cheerful, the chef was sure to check on me to make sure I liked the dish and added, “Zat eez naht so eezy to fahnd uhround ‘ere, no?”

And even though the dinner prices are a good bit high for bistro fare, SVR, NWW, and I did return a few days later for dinner. Again, everything was expertly prepared. The kitchen’s cooking technique really is flawless. For dinner, we ended up with pate de maison (homemade with many animal parts, but with liver the most pronounced flavor), a seared scallop dish (stunningly cooked scallops with a sauce that was savory and tart and fishy), and veal kidneys in mustard sauce (one of the offal dishes I passed up at lunch). My only complaint was about the pate’s texture. For spreading on bread, I prefer a pate that, well, spreads…like a paste (pate: French for ‘paste’). Bon Appetit Café’s pate was a little too crumbly to be manageable and nicely spreadable. A minor gripe. 

My main was the kidneys and these were, like the tripe, an amazing dish of non-standard meat parts. The mustard sauce was plentiful, silky, rich, and just a bit mustardy. It was another liquid ripe for sopping up with the wonderful bread. The dish was served with a small bouquet of nicely steamed vegetables (zucchini, haricot vert, carrots, and a breadcrumb stuffed tomato that was good enough to comprise the main part of a vegetarian plate), some parsnips, and a side of gratin potatoes. The gratin was, hands down, the richest food I’ve ever had in my life. Butter, cream, and cheese. They were all there in excess. Somehow, though, it wasn’t too much to handle. It was done right. So, while unbelievable decadent, the little soufflé dish of fat and potatoes succeeded. 

Wine was nothing mind-blowing…a red table wine called Chateau d’Oupia Minervois (2009). It was a solid bistro wine to accompany my heavier, meatier main and SVR’s somewhat lighter, but no less flavorful, shellfish dish. 

Crème brulee and coffees were very solid with a rightly crispy and caramelized crust on the crème. It still didn’t beat Red Bird’s, but at least little NWW got her first taste of real dessert. 

Start-to-finish, top-to-bottom, Bon Appetit Café is a total gem. We are glad to have it so nearby.

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