At six months, Bistro Vendome still has the potential to be a great spot. It has all the necessary elements -- a perfect little space with a garden patio tucked away off the street; a talented chef-owner, Eric Roeder, who comes with a pedigree full of names like Gray Kunz, Lespinasse, Q's and his own Micole; an excellent staff now being bossed by newly minted GM and partner Scott Tallman; and a lunch, dinner and weekend brunch board of fare that could have been excerpted from a textbook on classical bistro menu design.
And yet, I don't love the place. It's got everything I'm a sucker for, but something's still missing.
When I stopped in with a crowd for brunch last week, we were seated inside, beneath one of the giant hanging mirror-menus, and I instantly thought the thing was going to snap free of its moorings and crush me. Ironic? Absolutely -- but I wouldn't want to have this be my last meal. There were five of us at a table that seemed more appropriately sized for two with big appetites, and even before any food started arriving, that table was crowded with plates and silver, side plates, coffee mugs, water glasses, juice glasses and a good-sized French press pot of strong black coffee. Add to that Vendome's panier -- a basket of croissant, brioche, thick-sliced bread and pastries made fresh by some very talented in-house bakers -- and the daily assiette de fromage, and we were swapping out plates, rearranging glasses and stacking saucers like it was a Charlie Chaplin sketch before we got anywhere near the main course.
Still, even with the crowding -- five of us passing plates and bites of this and that across the table, pouring coffee and generally trying not to get our elbows in each other's eyes -- the space was fun. We felt cozy and happily squashed between the mustardy walls and a broad shaft of sunlight streaming in through the windows. The servers were good-humored and quick, with an architectural sense for the arrangement of things on the small tables that comes from long experience. And they were well-educated enough that when I quizzed two different staff members on three different occasions as to what, precisely, I was eating, I was given the same answer (and the right answer, which is pretty goddamn rare) each time. The coffee was strong, the beverage list (including a few gueules de bois, or hangover drinks, a French specialty) charmingly Continental. The four small wedges of cheese in the assiette -- one cow, two sheep and a goat variety -- were interesting, well-suited both to each other and the rosewater jam; the pastries were excellent; and everything was looking good. Until the entrees showed up.
Rubbery crepes. A salmon-and-brie sandwich in which the fish did nothing to complement the cheese and the brie seemed powerless to unfunk a salmon that was a weekend past its prime. A lovely pain perdu (French toast) made from a single piece of center-cut bread, ideally browned and sprinkled with confectioner's sugar -- but then served with a citrus honey so powerful it could have been used as an industrial sweetener and a fan of paper-thin sliced pears that had been scorched under the warming lamp. The only real winner was a traditional omelette champignons, which stuffed perfectly sautéed wild mushrooms inside a thin envelope of egg, then topped it with mimolette (the French version of edam that, in turn, is like a Dutch-style cheddar) and a lemon-and-vinegar-chased classic Hollandaise.
The best restaurants make everything look easy. But at Bistro Vendome, nothing looked easy. And while every operation is always one step away from some minor disaster, the great ones know how to make it look as though the three-alarm fire in the galley is nothing, really, and that as soon as the fire department leaves, everything will return to normal. If I had to make a guess -- and I do -- I'd say that the folks at Bistro Vendome just don't have their legs under them yet. But they will; I have faith in that. Vendome will get better because the menu is too good and the people working there are too talented for it not to get better.
Let's just hope it does so soon.
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