Simply Perfect

Where other eateries sometimes fail, Café Bistro succeeds.

click to enlarge MEAT AND POTATOES: Café Bistro's Steak and Fries may be the perfect weekend lunch. - Valerie Troyano
Valerie Troyano
MEAT AND POTATOES: Café Bistro's Steak and Fries may be the perfect weekend lunch.

I admit it — I don't shop at Nordstrom. My trips to International Plaza are often limited to dinner in the extensive restaurant section on the east side of the mall, or an hour in the children's play area with my son, or even a stroll through the Apple store while dreaming of a MacBook. Nordstrom is a little too chic for my style.

But there's food hidden amongst those racks of designer duds and tamed couture. Would you believe that a place like Nordstrom could revive the long lost art of the department store lunch counter via a place called Café Bistro?

It's certainly not the kind of lunch counter I remember from my youth, when Mom would take me out of school for patty melts and chocolate malts at JC Penney, just because she was bored. Café Bistro is definitely cut from a Nordstrom's mold. Here, the lunch counter is topped with marble and faces an open kitchen and giant brick-faced pizza oven, with immaculate chefs in white coats scurrying about in controlled chaos.

Instead of burgers and fries, there are steak and frites; instead of chocolate malts and root beer floats there are peach tea and dainty glasses of ruby red pinot noir. Apparently, the department store lunch counter has grown up.

That's not to say that Café Bistro is stuffy. You stand in line — sizable but quick during the lunch and dinner rush — to order and pay, but instead of carting off a plastic tray, servers will seat you and get you drinks, then bring your food as the kitchen finishes it. During peak times, the room is vibrant, even loud, but the tables are spaced well enough that conversation never becomes strained.

The term "bistro" is thrown about willy-nilly these days, but the Nordstrom version feels like the real deal.

The food fits, too. Simple dishes anchored by French working-class standards — like roast chicken or onion soup — are combined with impeccable technique exhibited by the Café Bistro kitchen staff. The nicoise salad ($10.50) is anchored by a thin filet of salmon that may be the best-cooked piece of fish I've had all year, paired with wedges of crisp-skinned roast potatoes, lively green beans and sections of hard-boiled egg. It's a simple salad, so there isn't a whole lot to it besides perfection.

Pounded wafer thin, it's difficult to get chicken paillard ($9.25) right, but Café Bistro succeeds, and sticks it on top another simple salad of arugula, onion and mustardy vinaigrette. Crab cake? This one ($12.95) is the best I've had all year. C'mon, Bay area chefs! Does it take a department store lunch counter to teach you how to take big lumps of sweet crab, mold them with a minimum of fuss and sauté until golden brown? Maybe you need to do some shopping and check it out.

Not to mention the tender chunks of roasted asparagus, crisp romaine and a vinaigrette that manages to distill the fruity essence of ripe tomatoes, all of which accompanies that crab cake. The same crab flavor infuses a pink bisque ($3.95) that feels rich without overpowering the subtle shellfish.

Who's in this kitchen, anyway?

The chef is Damon Vogell, but that doesn't explain much. He's new to Tampa and joined the Café Bistro crew about seven months ago, after a stint with a major hotel company. Even though Café Bistro is essentially a corporate chain, with multiple locations in Nordstroms across the country united by standardized training and operating procedures, it's clear that Vogell brings something special to our neck of the woods.

If there's a weak point, it may be the pizzas; they only manage to be good. A doughy but crisp crust is the foundation for a couple of Spago-ish topping options, like a "southwestern salad" pizza ($9.50) loaded with ranchero chicken, corn, onion, chiles, chive cream and, yes, a salad dressed with cilantro vinaigrette. Or four-cheese pesto ($8.95) with crumbled goat cheese and a hit of basil and oil. Both are fine, but there are better options here at Cafe Bistro.

Like a properly portioned piece of steak ($14.95) with an arugula salad and a glistening pile of crisp, salty French fries that may well be the perfect weekend lunch. The meat isn't dainty, but it also isn't the giant slab of protein found at the chain restaurants, so it's a pleasant surprise that Café Bistro manages to cook it rare, as ordered. By this point, maybe I shouldn't be surprised.

Sandwiches are served on dense multi-grain bread or beautiful ciabatta honeycombed by hundreds of tiny air pockets. Sliced sirloin, arugula, sweet onions and garlicky aioli ($8.95) work perfectly on that chewy ciabatta, but even better is a vibrant sandwich of rare tuna steak ($9.95). Chili powder, chili sauce, cilantro, lime and crunchy jicama transform this into a blast of bold flavors and varied textures. A great sandwich.

You don't have to be too hungry. Afternoon tea and dessert for two will only set you back about $10, and it's well worth it. Café Bistro's chocolate cake ($4.95) is essentially a huge wedge of intensely flavored fudge, so dense it's hard to cut through it with the side of a fork. Two people would have trouble finishing it. Infused with vanilla, the bread pudding ($4.95) is cut into giant wedges and crisped in the oven, a rich but manageable alternative to the cake.

A week later, stuck in front of my computer, typing away before my midday deadline, I can't stop salivating. Café Bistro serves my kind of food — simple, inexpensive and perfectly cooked. Hell, isn't that everybody's kind food? Looks like I might need to go do some shopping.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Creative Loafing food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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