People like their steak all kinds of ways – medium, rare, well-done. Some like mushroom sauce; some, pepper sauce. Some are happy with just the marinade in which the thing is cooked.
But a beef steak is, by definition, a particular cut of meat, sliced perpendicular to the muscle fibres. It’s rarely served the way it was at the Institut Francais’ new restaurant, Le Bistrot: a small, flat, dry burger patty sans bun, lacking in decoration or flavour.
Not everything about the steak frites was bad. The chips had just the right ratio of crunchiness to grease. The dish also came with a generous portion of green salad which, though doused considerably in dressing, was fresh enough. At $6.50 – it was on the “snack” menu rather than listed with the other main courses – it didn’t burn too big a hole in the wallet.
There are good things about the restaurant, too. The design is great. The main dining area is built behind the institute’s building on the north side of Street 184, and during the day, it’s a wonderful space.
Floor-to-ceiling windows let in floods of light, tinted green from the palms that crawl up beside them. Bulbous lampshades hang from the ceiling – an Eastern element in the otherwise European-style decor of mauve and grey tablecloths, large wine glasses and perfectly folded napkins.
The more informal bar towards the entrance serves the same fare, but in a very different atmosphere, akin to a rustic French brasserie. There was music. People were sitting at the bar. In the dining room, we were the only diners, and the only sound was the staff catching numerous bugs with an electric flyswatter.
Another day, at lunchtime, the setting was more pleasant: more diners, glorious light, and a very reasonable formule at $12 for either a starter and main course, or main course and dessert. This time, I started with a cold carrot and cumin soup, which was delicious and came with chunks of crusty baguette. For the main course, I ordered Toulouse sausage with chips. It was nondescript, but fine.
My dining partners weren’t so pleased. Chopped chunks of beetroot came as a surprise to a friend expecting, from the waitresses’ description, a vegetable tart, while blanquette de mer with tagliatelle was also a bland let-down. The disappointment partly came from the fact that the menu was only in French and the staff spoke little English – so if you want to enjoy lunch here, dining with a French speaker would help.
Another useful tip would be to order a main course from the à la carte menu. At lunch, a fellow diner enjoyed his poulet basquaise. Beef bourguignon was also tender and succulent. At $10 to $12, these dishes are all considerably more expensive, but worth choosing in comparison to the others.
At present the restaurant only stocks one option of red, and one of white wine, both of which are from France. A glass of red went down particularly well, as did the chocolate mousse we shared for dessert, which came decorated with slices of mango and apple. Because of this, I went home to bed dwelling on an experience not entirely soured by somebody’s disastrous conception of steak.
Le Bistrot, Institut Francais, #218 Street 184. On the north side of the street.