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Review: Escargot Bistro brings cozy French charm to Oakland Park | Video

 

★★★½

Let us praise snails. Not simply as food, but also as a symbol to protest a world becoming ever more frenetic. Although the traditional French dish of escargots is easy to malign with “ewws” and “ughs,” the dark, mysterious meat has its virtues. They are high in protein and low in fat. At Escargot Bistro in Oakland Park, a whole menu section is devoted to their versatility. Snails are broiled in butter with garlic and parsley, heaped atop salads, steaks, eggs and artichokes, folded into crepes and baked into puff pastry.

Snails not only show up on plates, they also decorate the walls and shelves with pictures, sculptures and other knickknacks. There’s even a poem about snails painted on a paddle in a restroom. One does not have to like or eat snails to enjoy a meal at Escargot Bistro. The menu offers many comforting classics, such as baked brie, onion soup blanketed with melted Gruyere, mussels in white wine and a fine beef Bourguignon with spinach fettucine.

But the snail motif dominates, and I believe it’s meant to send a message in this relentless, 24/7 news-and-social-media world. A snail crawls at a snail’s pace, but its speed doesn’t seem slow to the snail. It can retreat into its shell, blissfully shutting out the chaos surrounding it. Escargot Bistro is a snail of a restaurant, and I mean that as a compliment.

When I stepped inside Escargot Bistro for the first time recently, I felt welcomed, warm and protected. There are no televisions, and I did not get the urge in two hours to look at a smartphone, watch or clock. I felt as if I had stepped into someone’s den, or a bistro in a rustic village in Burgundy or Provence, far from the tourist path. It is a place for grownups to enjoy a leisurely meal over a bottle of wine and conversation. You will not rush or feel rushed, partly because the dining here is purposely non-American and partly because the only ones roaming the floor tending to the nine tables are co-owners Didier and Andrea Martin. There are no other servers.

Didier says he does not have any other help because he wants to interact with all customers, and he wants Escargot Bistro to maintain an intimate, homey character. Things move at their own pace, and that pace feels right. Escargot Bistro serves food you will want to linger over, an atmosphere that almost makes you pine for the days when you could pull out a pack of Gitanes cigarettes and take long drags between courses and sips of Beaujolais.

Didier, who chats up newcomers and regulars alike, is from Normandy, the rugged region on France’s north shore. Andrea, who dashes from the dining room to the small kitchen to make appetizers and desserts and assist chef Jacques Bagot, is from Cannes, on the sun-splashed southern coast. Put them together and you have happy equilibrium.

When Andrea serves her baked brie in puff pastry with sauteed apples ($13.50), or a dessert crepe with goat cheese and honey ($9.50), she unleashes cries of “Oh la la” that seem born of earnest joy and not contrived hokeyness. After taking comforting bites of each, I almost shouted the same.

Escargot Bistro is small and cozy, with 26 seats. It is the perfect antidote to a restaurant landscape that has become too loudtoo corporate and too calibrated. The phrase “charming French bistro” is one of those food cliches that usually stays locked in my word pantry, but Escargot Bistro truly is charming.

The dining companion who called for a Saturday night reservation said she was charmed when Didier quickly called back to finalize the details. “He sounded so nice,” she said. She was charmed when he opened a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape and asked who would like to taste it, not automatically pouring it into a man’s glass (she did the honors and it was good). She was charmed when she saw the first item listed on the dessert menu was a proper cheese platter ($9.50), because she cannot fathom why any restaurant would not offer cheese after a meal.

When we arrived, Didier cheerfully sat our incomplete party while we waited for a latecomer. He bantered breezily while we ordered wine. When our final guest arrived, he went over the specials and when I asked the cost of the daily fish, a sole fillet, he kept a straight face and said, “Fifty-five dollars.” Nothing else on the menu exceeded $35.

I arched an eyebrow. “Too much?” he deadpanned. “Actually, it’s $33.50 … Would you have payed $55?”

“I have at some places on the beach,” I said.

“We are not the beach,” he said.

Didier and Andrea opened Escargot Bistro three years ago, after they sold a cafe-patisserie in West Palm Beach. Because of a non-compete provision, they could not open a new eatery in Palm Beach County. Bagot, a veteran chef from Normandy who once owned his own restaurant in Boca Raton, teamed up with them because he lives in Davie and was tired of the daily commute to his job at a French restaurant in West Palm Beach.

Escargot Bistro gets crowded on weekends, making reservations essential, but weekdays are less hectic. The restaurant is in the same Commercial Boulevard plaza as the popular Thai Spice, and the cramped parking lot can be hard to navigate, but the Martins have an arrangement so that customers can use the Thai Spice valet service. The Martins have maintained their Frenchness, with an appropriate work-life balance. The restaurant is closed two days a week (Sunday and Monday) and the Martins take a one-week holiday around July 4th and a three-week break each September, visiting family in France.

The bistro fare is straightforward and enjoyable. Cheese-covered onion soup ($7.50) will warm hearts on chilly nights, made traditionally with beef and onion stock and spiked with a enriching dose of brandy. Cured gravlax salmon ($14.50) has a hint of sweetness from honey and saltiness from French kosher salt, and tastes refreshing with dill, lemon, wasabi.

Paradoxically, the one thing I didn’t love at Escargot Bistro were the snails themselves. The restaurant uses canned Indonesian snails in olive oil because Didier says they are softer, more consistent and more cost effective than French snails or fresh snails in shells, but they didn’t have any distinguishing taste apart from being brown nubs of garlicky mush. The supporting plate I had was fine, an au gratin preparation ($13.50) that had the escargot perched atop an artichoke heart, surrounded by fresh chopped spinach and sauteed mushrooms, and covered with melted cheese and Bechamel sauce.

Coq au vin ($29.50), a special, was satisfying, with chicken leg and thigh simmered in red wine sauce for days. The rack of New Zealand lamb ($34.50), was tender and cooked to the ordered medium-rare, coated in a Dijon persillade that was not overpowering. The sole special ($33.50) was cooked appropriately, but the bright green herb-and-spice sauce that topped it was a bit sweet and overwhelming. Frites that I ordered with the fish were hot and crisp, a refined version of McDonald’s fine shoestring fries.

A chilled creme brulee ($8.50) with caramelized top was a perfect rendition of the classic dessert, rich, custardy and not too sweet with a distinct hint of vanilla bean. It melted in my mouth, just as time had melted around me. Here’s to the snail life. Vive les escargots.

Escargot Bistro

1506 E. Commercial Blvd., Oakland Park

754-206-4116, or EscargotBistro.com

Cuisine: French

Cost: Moderate-expensive. Soups, salads and appetizers cost $7.50 to $14.50, entrees $24.50-$34.50, desserts $7.50-$9.50. Lunch menu includes sandwiches, quiche and eggs ($9.50-$13.50). Three-course, early-bird dinner available 4:30-5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday for $28.50

Hours: 11:45 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday. Closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Open New Year’s Eve (special menu, reservations required)

Reservations: Recommended, particularly on Friday-Saturday

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Wine and beer (Kronenbourg is the sole selection) only. Compact, reasonable French-centered wine list, with most bottles in the $30-$60 range. $25 corkage fee to bring own wine

Noise level: Conversational, even when full.

Wheelchair access: Ground level

Parking: Free lot or can use valet for Thai Spice restaurant in same plaza

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail. Join the conversation at Facebook.com/groups/LetsEatSouthFlorida.

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