Bistro Bleu: Simple pleasures

Second time's the charm at the former NoHo Bistro.

click to enlarge SECONDS ON SALAD: Bistro Bleu's deconstructed Caesar salad. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
SECONDS ON SALAD: Bistro Bleu's deconstructed Caesar salad.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, according to Emerson, but inconsistency is the greater problem in most things we do. And nowhere is that more the case than in restaurants. In small independent spots, the stakes are particularly high. A rough experience can easily turn a potential regular into a bad-mouthing Yelp reviewer, all the while leaving fans of the offending restaurant baffled by the online vitriol.

A single bad night is all it takes. Luckily for me, a single bad night at South Tampa's Bistro Bleu just spurred on more visits.

Previously located on the other side of I-275 and known as NoHo Bistro, Bistro Bleu moved into the former space of Marrakech on MacDill about two months ago under the aegis of chef/co-owner Tina Hurless. The dining room is bisected by a horseshoe bar, one section set aside for private functions and overflow, the other a wide open casual space of hard surfaces (it can be loud when busy) and adorned with local art. There's a damn fine list of craft brews, headlined by several Cigar City offerings, and a menu that flitters between restaurant comfort food and deconstructed classics.

When it comes to the food, the differences between my experiences at Bistro Bleu are subtle, perhaps, but those small changes had a huge impact. On the first night, the restaurant's deconstructed Caesar salad was a muddled, leaden mess of watery lettuce and scant dressing that made me angry I was having to do most of the work for such little reward. On another visit, the dish started to make some sense.

At its best, leaves of green are arranged around a small plate, topped by a tender poached egg and two strips of crisp bacon. When the greens are dry and appropriately dressed, they provide a nice contrast that cuts through the rich yolk and fatty bacon, with tart grape tomatoes providing an occasional burst of fresh acidity. [Editor's Note: The restaurant served the salad with a more photogenic over-easy egg when we took the shot accompanying this story.]

Bistro Bleu's mac and cheese is another example of the fine line between success and failure. The bad version was a soup of cream and cheese suspending curls of overcooked pasta. Thicken and reduce the amount of that sauce, cook the pasta correctly, and you have a dish that cheese lovers can get behind, punctuated with bits of earthy roasted mushrooms, like it was on another visit. I might quibble with the use of blue cheese — it tends to dominate both the good and bad versions of the dish — but read the name of the restaurant and you know what you're getting into.

Gnocchi is better, the gorgonzola meshing well with bits of crisp bacon, sweet caramelized onions and the simple potato dumplings.

No matter the night, I can't recommend Bistro Bleu's sweet potato and apple soup. Apple never makes a noticeable appearance, and the unctuous consistency and dull flavor of the sweet potatoes is only broken by the flailing stab of spicy candied ginger.

Pizzas here are simple affairs constructed on thin sheets of cracker crust, then piled with plenty of cheese to compensate for the lack of sauce at the price of complexity. Tasty in small doses, the pizzas make for a serviceable appetizer for a group of people, but quickly become monotonous as an entree.

Bistro Bleu is better with simpler dishes, like basic chicken parmesan pounded thin and fried crisp, with bright tomato sauce and a coating of sharp cheese. The mushroom risotto on the side is basic and untraditional, but works surprisingly well with the chicken. The restaurant's cylindrical flat-iron steak is rich and gamey, with more beef flavor than you'll find in a dozen filets, although the shape makes it tough for this restaurant to cook as ordered — even on the good nights.

Why are there bad nights at a place like Bistro Bleu? From the diner's perspective it doesn't really matter, because restaurants usually just get one shot at impressing a guest. But here's hoping my experience is a good example of why you might want to give a place a second chance. If you don't, you could miss something tasty that's worth the extra effort.

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