Even chef and owner William Walden admits that the plaza that houses his 3-month-old Bistro Gastronomie in west Boca is a bit "bedraggled." But it makes opening the front door all that more dramatic.
Shuster Design Associates of Wilton Manors erased all signs of the former Backstreet Grille and turned the 150-seat space into a flamboyantly new-fashioned French restaurant complete with paneled walls, gilded mirrors and long, white banquettes.
There's just enough visual drama to keep the room interesting, but not so much to make it stuffy. The black chandelier in the center of the room is mighty cool. The thick, patterned carpeting takes me back to every grand restaurant at which I've ever had a meal. I could do without the framed prints of French impressionists.
It took a minute to register that the dapper guy in the suit with the wonderful accent — Manu Garcia, I later learn — is the manager and captain at Bistro Gastronomie. He's rather formal, while the kibitzing waiters and busboys are informal. Except for a clueless who's-eating-what salad delivery, they are mostly a seamless team.
It's this nod to decorum that no doubt attracts a well-dressed crowd who remember when this style of service was de rigueur. Jackets aren't necessary, but if you want to wear one, this would be the place.
Walden, 47, started his career at the now 60-year-old L'Auberge Chez Francois outside of Washington, D.C., and went on to open his own Virginia restaurant, La Fleur de Lis, which he sold when a developer came knocking.
The best way to dine at Bistro Gastronomie is to partake in a four-course prix fixe, which lowers the price of dinner, and gives diners a wide sampling of the menu. Everything on the menu is included, although a few selections — soufflés and Hudson Valley seared foie gras, among them — require a supplement.
Walden has been cooking French food for a long time, and it shows in some simple ways. His Chef's French onion soup ($10), served in a classic white porcelain eared bowl, is hot, but not ridiculously so, and the melted cheese is top-quality aged Gruyere. The broth is lighter than classic onion soup. La crepe Maman "Cecile" ($12) puts wild mushrooms inside the crepe and serves it with a sauce bumped up with truffle essence. Classic Burgundy escargots ($14) are tender, but not so buttery to overwhelm. Duo of Salmon ($18), one house-cured and one pastrami-smoked, is served on a plate with crudités.
Second-course selections include an avocado, shrimp and grapefruit salad ($18) that would make an incredible light dinner. The shrimp and avocado are layered in an inverted timbale and served with a surprising bourbon-vanilla vinaigrette. Roasted duck salad confit ($16) needed just a bit more champagne vinaigrette. Caesar salad ($12) was outstanding, although it seemed almost informal — and way too American — next to the other greens.
I couldn't resist a special the other night: the classic Alsatian dish known as choucroute garnie ($36), sauerkraut braised in Riesling, served with three kinds of sausage, some duck breast, a slice of foie gras and potatoes. This is stick-to-your-ribs French comfort food at its best. A prime center-cut filet mignon ($42) is cooked to perfect temperature and served with a side of béarnaise. Colorado rack of lamb ($48) gets a garlic and parsley crust made with mustard and herbes de Provence and, like the steak, is cooked perfectly. Stuffed trout ($34) with crabmeat and toasted almonds is sauced with lemon beurre blanc, but the dish would be much more appetizing if the portion were smaller or the plate were larger.
Walden believes in giving people plenty of food for their money. But his plating is old-fashioned, with tomatoes and parsley, for instance, finding their way onto dishes that contain neither ingredient. Get rid of them. The assortment of well-prepared vegetables that accompany every entrée is garnish enough. Walden says he has an acre-sized vegetable garden in Ohio and a gardener he speaks to twice a week to see what he can expect to be shipped.
You'll want a soufflé ($18), either chocolate, raspberry or Grand Marnier, but hope it's not overcooked like those brought to our table. Better choices were bread pudding ($12) and carrot cake ($12). The carrot cake had a thick cream-cheese frosting. The pastry chef is Alethea Hickman, who has been baking for Palm Beach County VIPs for years.
I'm delighted that Bistro Gastronomie has arrived. Walden says he had a good season, and he wants to keep the restaurant full with a new three-course sunset menu from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. If you don't mind eating early, it's just $29. The menu I saw had five main-course selections, including steak frites and a small version of choucroute garnie.
9101 Lakeridge Blvd., Boca Raton
Cost: Expensive-very expensive
Hours: Dinner Wednesday-Monday; lunch Monday and Wednesday-Saturday; brunch Sunday; closed Tuesdays
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Moderate
Outside smoking: No
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free valet on weekends or free lot