The Left Bank Bistro
3 out of 5 stars
1225 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N., St. Petersburg. Appetizers: $7-$17; entrees: $14.50-$30; desserts: $6; beer, cocktails & wine: $6-$18. 727-256-1691, theleftbankbistro.com.
Clearly if you’re caught up in a romantic dream, pondering about to which great era in history you’d like to time travel, 1920s Paris would be high on the list. The Roaring Twenties were at their apex during those années folles (“crazy years” in French), when Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso and Gertrude Stein reigned over France’s bubbling cauldron of creativity, intellectual foment and decadence.
When I see The Left Bank Bistro’s website spinning tales of the Jazz-Age Rive Gauche, my heart goes pit-pitty-pat. Restaurateur Susanne Byram’s distinctive renovation of a ’20s bungalow in St. Petersburg shows a keen eye for style. There’s a brilliant seating area around the fireplace, a striking side porch with stools, umbrellas and lantern sconces, a smashing bar that glows cobalt blue, and an evocative display of period black-and-white photos. Large and handsome chandeliers also hover over the dining room from the long beam of the tall, peaked ceiling.
The menu, however, is surprisingly limited. So many French bistro options are possible. Where are steak frites, duck confit, beef tartare, quiche Lorraine, beef bourguignon, croque-monsieur or crêpes? Instead, our choices include poutine, which is a Québécois dish from the 1950s, and distinctly Middle Eastern hummus. These are surely popular and easy for the kitchen to prepare, but hardly emblematic of the Paris of the 1920s.
French onion stout soup is pleasant with a nice cap of melted Gruyére and a toasted baguette crouton. But the broth is wimpy, and the alliums of choice — red onions and shallots — aren’t caramelized to Julia Child’s standards. It’s a long, laborious process, in which the onions practically disappear as they slowly darken when their sugars concentrate. What’s left is a soft, sweet and deeply flavored base for soup. The Left Bank’s version is deglazed in stout, yet strangely not as full-flavored as one might expect from this treatment, because there are large pieces of soft onion.
Normally in a Parisian bistro, you’ll find a tranche of rustic pâté de campagne, but here, chicken liver pâté is a jar of creamy goodness. The liver is milk-soaked overnight before blended with Marsala, herbs, butter and crème fraîche for a lush delight. The bill of fare hawks lavash crackers, though the dish is beautifully presented with toast triangles set on edge to resemble a cubist mountain range next to a beet red mound of onion marmalade.
Grilled beef tenderloin is au poivre-crusted and served beside some honey glazed onions with horseradish cream on top of a smooth potato purée with hints of garlic. Our server then pours a light, flavorful bouillon around the plate. Sadly, it’s too much of a good thing, and this throws the plate out of balance. A few tablespoons to garnish might be a nice touch, but emptying the whole vessel drowns the potatoes and beef, totally transforming the dish.
Flip through more shots of what CL experienced from photographer James Ostrand
While the salmon fillet looks like it might be dry, a flick of the fork reveals a perfect and tender center. There’s a light, creamy sauce surrounded by three kinds of baby carrots, as well as tiny white and purple cauliflower florets with lightly caramelized edges. Unfortunately, the veggies are lukewarm, which detracts from an otherwise lovely plate.
Traditional coq au vin is quite flavorful. The wine-braised chicken has proper lardons, but the pearl onion and mushroom garnishes are dissolved into the sauce finished with brandy. Julia Child demands that sautéed mushrooms and brown braised onions need to be done separately as garnishes to hold their shape. The sauce could use further reduction or an emulsifying technique, too; it’s more broth than gravy.
The star of the evening is the sumptuous bouillabaisse worthy of Marseille. Local white fish and surprisingly tender coral-colored mussels peek out of their shells, appearing like the beaks of baby birds poking skyward. Lovely clams and succulent shrimp also float with an array of vegetables in an aromatic charred fennel-saffron broth. A dollop of fire-roasted red pepper rouille sits between toasted grilled country baguette ends to make sure you don’t leave behind any of the transporting flavors.
When it’s time for sweets, we skip the mixed berry tart for the pot de crème, which is huge. I’m used to single-serving sizes, but this easily serves two or more. Tinged with orange, the decadent dark chocolate French custard is dressed with piped Chantilly cream, mixed berries and a sprig of fresh mint. The chocolate tuile cookie listed on the menu is absent, but that really doesn’t matter. The dessert is full of flavor, even if its custard is a bit less refined.
The other regular dessert is bread pudding, more English in origin and, of course, iconic as a creole treat from New Orleans. The Left Bank’s interpretation soaks artisanal bread and croissant with nutmeg and vanilla. It’s served piping hot in cast iron and topped with spiced rum crème anglaise. We’ve now gotten used to so many bread pudding variations adding white chocolate or pumpkin spice that this one lacks excitement.
Byram is on her second chef, a reminder that opening a successful restaurant needs more than vision and good taste. The Left Bank Bistro is on the right track — it just needs to find its sea legs and connect to the bounty of its French origins for a future of smooth sailing.