– Jane Dornbusch for YourArlington.com
It can’t be easy to open a new restaurant in a space left vacant by the closure of a longtime local favorite. Comparisons will be inevitable, and only the late, lamented place can use the world’s most powerful seasoning: nostalgia.
That’s one aspect of the challenge facing the team behind Bistro Duet, which opened in January in the space formerly occupied – for 20 years – by Flora. Flora was an early outpost of fine dining in Arlington, and even now, there aren’t many upscale places in town. Bistro Duet has followed flora’s lead in price point and, largely, décor, if not in culinary style.
It’s still a “fancy” place that will be more of a special-occasion destination than a regular dining-out experience for many. That, too, comes with its challenges: High prices, white tablecloths and menus en français create their own set of expectations, and restaurants that create those expectations and fail to meet them do so at their peril.
So it was good to learn, on a recent chilly Friday night, that Bistro Duet is by and large up to the task. Where flora’s menu was “new American” (whatever that may mean), Bistro Duet describes its food as “modern French cuisine.” There is an authentic Frenchman behind the stove: Cyrille Couet, who most recently served as executive chef at BU’s Questrom School of Business. But with a menu anchored by such dishes as coq au vin, bouillabaisse and steak frites, the cuisine seems much more classic than modern.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. So few restaurants serve classic French cuisine that there’s something a bit novel about the concept, in the everything-old-is-new-again sense. And there’s a reason these dishes are classics: When executed properly, they can be deeply satisfying.
Consider the wild mushroom ragout appetizer. If you had a French grandmother, she’d readily recognize everything on the plate. Oyster, shiitake and crimini mushrooms, piled into and tumbling over the edges of a puff pastry vol-au-vent, are served up in a creamy sauce that balances richness and lightness. Delicious and delightful, yes, but not at all innovative.
Brandade a la grand-mère
Another appetizer, brandade, also hews to tradition. (Both starters and plats principaux are sorted by land and sea, or de la mer and de la terre, as the menu has it. The mushrooms are terre, the brandade is mer.) A smooth but slightly lumpy mash of salt cod, potatoes and olive oil, the brandade is delicate in taste and texture, and only mildly fishy; if you shun salt cod because of its strong flavor, this is a revelation. Crisp, almost impossibly thin homemade potato chips are served alongside.
Butternut squash soup came topped with a squiggle of pesto. Fragrant with sweet spices, the smooth soup was a warming choice for a cold night. We were intrigued by an appetizer described as “Buckwheat and Pepitas Cracker Ring” (now, that didn’t sound particularly French) and were surprised when it turned out to be a salad topped with, yes, a cracker ring – a round, flat, crunchy ring that was seemingly meant to be broken up and eaten like a fancy crouton. Candied cranberries gave the salad, which was underdressed to the point of being dry, a bit of fruity zing.
The French grandmother who popped in during the appetizer course would also be unsurprised, and perhaps favorably impressed, by the coq au vin, described on the menu as “48 Hour Coq Au Vin.” The claim is unverifiable, but the dish certainly has the deep, rich, evolved flavor of something that’s been slowly braised for many hours. The large portion of stewed dark meat, studded with carrots, pearl onions, and bacony bits of lardon (or was it pancetta?) is served over homemade tagliatelle; it may be too soon to declare it a signature dish of this 2-month-old restaurant, but it’s well on its way. La grand-mère would probably also approve of the monkfish, medallions that will remind you why monkfish is sometimes called “poor man’s lobster,” wrapped in Serrano ham and served with carrots braised into sweet submission.
Sauce improves duck
We’d heard good things about the duck, so it was a bit disappointing to find it rather chewy, with a flabby skin. (Yes, crisp duck skin is a bit like Shangri-La, but we’ve seen it with our own eyes and know it can be achieved.) But the sweet-smoky sauce was a nice complement to the rich meat. Like the pepita cracker ring, the dish called “Fried Chickpea Pont Neuf” intrigued and surprised. The pureed chickpeas were formed into stubby pillars and fried; only later did we wonder if they were supposed to suggest Pont Neuf fried potatoes. They were served with what was described as a vegetable stew, but seemed more like a piperade or a sauté of peppers and such. It was fresh-tasting and uncomplicated (and, it should be noted, the only menu option for vegetarians).
The meal won’t leave you with much room for dessert, but if you can’t resist, the Nutella mousse delivers. The mousse itself is surprisingly light in flavor (certainly not in calories) and tastes subtly, not overpoweringly, of the famous chocolate hazelnut spread. Crunchy pillars of meringue are served with it; they can be used to scoop up the mousse. We found this combination overly sweet, but your mileage may vary. Financiers are little almond pastries, a bit chewy by design. An order comes with five pieces and a tiny ramekin of fruit compote that seemed frankly odd; upon questioning, our charming waitress told us it contained butternut squash, a definite misstep.
Service throughout the evening was friendly and gracious. It was a pleasure to be asked, “Are you still enjoying your meal?” rather than the offhand and inexplicably popular “You still working on that?” (When did a meal become something to work on?)
Like flora before it, Bistro Duet makes no effort to disguise the room’s origin as a bank; the high ceilings and period detail create much of the charm and elegance in a space that manages to be both cavernous and cozy. (Flora regulars will notice that the new owners have removed the distinctive bank vault arch, a clue to the room’s pre-restaurant incarnation.) And Bistro Duet, like flora before it, may well become a beloved local mainstay once it gets past a few early wobbles and settles into a rhythm. It doesn’t do exactly what flora did, but it bids fair to be a worthy successor.
Bistro Duet, 190 Mass. Ave., East Arlington, 781-316-8808
Dinner: Nightly from 5 to 10
Bar: Thursday through Saturday, 5 to midnight
Sunday through Wednesday, 5 to 11
Brunch: Sunday, 11:30 to 2:30
Rating 4 out of 5 stars
(on scale of 1 to 4 dollar signs)