Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Dish on Dining: Artisan Bistro

Rustic Elegance in a Home
1005 Brown Ave., Lafayette
PH: 925.962.0882
Lunch Tue.–Fri., 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; weekend brunch, 10 a.m.–2:30 p.m., dinner, 5:30–9:30 p.m. (until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday), closed Mondays
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

Lately I’ve been having a lot of fun venturing outside my typical San Francisco and Oakland jaunts because of some fortuitous access to wheels. One was a trip to Contra Costa County when I got an email awhile back from Foodhoe Foraging who suggested we check out the relatively new Artisan Bistro.

Opened in March, Artisan Bistro has a “stimulus menu” promotion running till the end of August. A lot of restaurants these days are offering up specials because of the economy, and Artisan Bistro’s mini stimulus package is a “Dinner for Two” for $75, available every Tuesday and Wednesday.

So Foodhoe picked me up at the MacArthur BART last Tuesday and we headed through the Caldecott Tunnel for some East Bay dining, guided by her talkative GPS navigator.

Artisan Bistro took over what was previously an Italian restaurant, but it really looks like it’s in someone’s home because the structure was probably a former single-family home. But that’s OK because I often love the charm of dining in a refurbished home—it just adds to the coziness.

But what’s confusing about the home layout is that—to optimize floor space with more tables—the traditional foyer area had been transformed into a seating area. So the front door was closed shut, causing a lot of people to walk up the front steps and realize that they can’t get in. You actually have to enter through the garden. (Foodhoe wanted to sit in the garden for optimal lighting, but it was a bit windy and I don’t like things flying into my food.)

Another reason why I agreed to follow Foodhoe all the way to Lafayette was to check out the chef, John Marquez. Chef Marquez has a very impressive resume, working at such fine dining establishments as the former Elisabeth Daniel, the French Laundry, Per Se, and most recently chef de cuisine at Coi.

The stimulus dinner had changed a bit since Foodhoe first read about it. The dinner for two was now just a prix fixe menu of $30 per person (no wine). Anywho, there were still some very interesting offerings.

Foodhoe started with the Baby Spinach and Bacon Salad, which was a large plate of greens topped with white anchovy, red onions, parmesan and croutons. It looked like any other salad to me, but Foodhoe said she really liked the red wine Caesar dressing.

I got the Steamed PEI Mussels that was a heaping helping of fresh mussels dressed with shallots and sherry vinaigrette. The vinaigrette gave a nice twang to the mussels, but the aroma of bits of fried garlic is what really made this dish stand out. I was really happy with this starter.

For our main courses, Foodhoe was gracious enough to order the Flat Iron Steak Frites because she knows I don’t eat fried foods and the plate came filled with French fries. The steak was topped with caramelized onions and served with some spinach. Foodhoe liked it but the meat was cooked more done than the medium she requested. I took a bite and thought it was good, but nothing special.

I got the Alaskan Halibut served with maitake mushrooms and a black eyed pea ragout. The halibut filet had a nice golden brown sear to it, but I felt it was slightly overcooked. The ragout was nice, but one dimensional in flavor. There wasn’t enough complexity to add to the overall dish.

Our final course was dessert, and Foodhoe got the Cherry Bread Pudding served with whipped cream and a spiced chocolate sauce, and topped off with a chocolate-covered cherry. The presentation was beautiful but the bread pudding, to me, tasted a bit like pie and less like bread pudding.

I got the Tiramisu, which is one of my all-time favorite desserts. At Artisan Bistro, the tiramisu is served with a banana cream and white chocolate-espresso sauce. The banana cream had a nice banana flavor, but I thought it overwhelmed the coffee taste of the traditional tiramisu when blending the two together. Plus, my tiramisu was way soggy from being drowned in espresso. So instead of feeling light and airy, it felt wet and cheap.

The service was very friendly and professional, and Artisan Bistro seems to be garnering attention because of Chef Marquez’s previous employment. But it’s because of his resume that I found this dinner to be lacking. I expected more, and I was surprised that the quality of the dishes lacked finesse. Where was the creativity or imagination?

Artisan Bistro might fit well in the Lafayette dining scene, but you would think this city deserves more than just what might be considered an average dinner in San Francisco. Who knows, maybe Chef Marquez might get more creative or challenge himself more after settling into Lafayette. Let’s hope so.

Single guy rating: 3 stars (Pleasing but no surprises)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Artisan Bistro on Urbanspoon

Similar restaurant reviews:
Chez Papa Resto: “From Bistro to Paris Chic”
Bar Tartine: “More Than Baked Goods at this Neighborhood Bistro”
Coi: “The High Price of Eating With All Your Senses”

1 comment:

foodhoe said...

Single guy, I was pretty disappointed with the meal too. I expected moments of grandeur but everything was so ordinary albeit well prepared... Thanks for being a sport