Bread and Balm at Bistro Cuisine

Life at the hub of the Galleria area seems kinder now that caterer Marian Tindall has opened her French-inspired lunchroom, Bistro Cuisine. A perfect croque monsieur; triumphant Caesar salad; a proprietress who concocts her own mayonnaise, bakes her own breads, roasts her own beef and exhibits a healthy respect for garlic -- it sounds too good to be true. But there it sits behind long floats of provincial lace, tucked behind Dillard's on a secluded West Alabama backwater, primed to fill a niche that is seriously undersupplied in this French-poor town.

A woman who actually roasts red peppers in honor of that comforting Texas staple, pimento cheese, is a woman who has her priorities in order. Tindall, a onetime French teacher and lifelong Francophile who has trained and traveled extensively in that country, has enough humor to indulge our regional pimento quirk while stamping it with her own brand of integrity. Two kinds of aged cheddar are bound up with a chive-spiked mayonnaise that runs rings around the usual bourgeois sauce, then housed between fat, irregular slices of homemade whole-wheat bread.

The result is just as authoritative, in its way, as Tindall's Frenchified offerings. Her stubby-handled crockful of onion soup is a keeper, its richly fragrant broth endowed with a garlicky French-bread crouton trailing strings of Gouda and nutty, pungent Gruyere. The more you eat, the more you appreciate the sweetness of the onions, the balance of the flavors, the occasional small bursts of black pepper, the substance and style of that French-bread raft.

Wherever it lands, Tindall's bread works its magic. Together with lively cayenne-peppered mayonnaise and rare, thin slices of house-roasted beef, the French bread becomes one of the few local roast beef sandwiches worth eating. Plump herbed croutons and more of that French bread grilled, garlicked and olive-oiled lend additional bounce to the lemony Caesar salad, which boasts shaved Parmesan, a tinge of fresh-garlic heat and just the right anchovy topspin. These days, every second restaurant likes to brag that it has the city's best Caesar, and the Bistro is no exception; the difference is that its salad really does rank near the head of the class.

Then there's the impeccable croque monsieur, its brioche-like squares of white bread singed into a crusty scallop shape by the traditional French sandwich toaster; its slices of ham and melted Jarlsberg cheese delivering flavor above and beyond the call of duty; its deliciously winy bechamel sauce bringing the whole thing into focus. To consume this sandwich in the bistro's airily serene space -- to be washed in its toasty, beige-pink light and spoiled by such bonuses as sturdy house-made potato chips and cinnamon-orange iced tea -- is a pure urban balm.

So is the amusingly named Cro Magnon salad of kinky frisee lettuce (the pale, festive-looking greens known as curly endive). This offering bears an unpredictable trove of wickedly rich duck-skin cracklings, ribbons of tartly marinated duck breast and corn stripped right off the cob. Given the Bistro's lovely vinaigrettes, you have to wonder why they don't apply them a bit more liberally to this and other salads: where most places sin by overdousing their greens, Bistro Cuisine tends to underdress, sometimes disconcertingly so. At least this, unlike overdressing, is correctable; just ask for extra vinaigrette.

I wish I'd had more of the hazelnut version that came with a mesclun salad of mixed greens and a baked, goat-cheese crouton. But the accompanying cloves of soft, baked garlic constituted a real luxury when smeared on slices of grilled bread. Alas, our American heads have been so turned by all those neo-Niçoise salads featuring fresh grilled tuna that the unadorned canned albacore anchoring Bistro Cuisine's more authentic rendition looks naked and stark, high quality or no. Which is not to say I wouldn't eat this Niçoise happily any day of the week -- especially since along with its sliced tomatoes, it includes briskly dressed new potatoes and green beans and a dramatic egg garnish. "What happened to your deviled egg?" a friend of mine asked in alarm, unnerved by its inky-purple tapenade stuffing. He needn't have been: this briny, pleasantly sweet version of the classic black-olive spread is an inspired touch.

About that new-potato-and-green-bean salad: it may be the best potato salad in town, bright with mustard and balsamic vinaigrette, laced with sweet red onion and given a textural lift by its cargo of still-crisp green beans. Mayonnaise. Who needs it? A $2.50 portion is big enough to split, but this is one dish that I feel disinclined to share.

Any downside here is in the nature of quibbles. An otherwise appealing hamburger may emerge so thoroughly grilled as to diminish the effect of its peppery seasoning, its roasted garlic mayonnaise, its cloak of sauteed mushrooms and distinctive Jarlsberg cheese. But the dense sourdough roll that carries this and other hot sandwiches is an unalloyed hit. Bistro Cuisine's unusually fresh-tasting, laid-back gazpacho variant comes only in a big $4 soup plate; serving a smaller portion to go would keep tabs more reasonable.

And the bill for the small handful of hot plates -- "plats du jour gourmets," if you please -- seems high at nine and ten bucks, given the self-service context. The food involved is just fine: rare-ish roasted lamb in a gently garlicked cream, served with an appealing potato gratin and sprightly salad, or wonderfully moist roasted chicken, its full flavor intensified by cloves of garlic tucked under its skin, sitting atop a curly, crouton-rich field of "bread salad" that would be terrific if only its greens bore more dressing (the golden raisins are an interesting grace note). Still and all, these cooked-ahead plates have an air of rarefied leftovers that would be mitigated by softer prices. I'm holding out for the duck-and-pork cassoulet that Tindall plans to start serving in October -- she's the sort of cook you'd trust to make this glorified bean dish, and at $7.75, the price is right.

Oddly enough, the desserts here don't quite live up to the expectations raised by the rest of the food. An agreeable, almond-scented version of creme caramel stops just shy of being too sweet, and an open-faced apple tart, while good enough, fails to ring any bells. A biscuity cobbler of blueberries and peaches would have fared better had it not been so halfheartedly reheated. I'd rather spend my pennies on the homey cookies: peanut butter with cashews, chocolate-chocolate chip and spicy oatmeal. There is excellent French-roast coffee, praise be, which winds things up with a flourish.

So far Bistro Cuisine -- open for weekdays-only lunch since July -- remains largely undiscovered. That should change: this is one of the Galleria area's nicest amenities, and once people who work in the neighborhood sample its charms, they tend to get hooked. Male friends of mine who can't get enough of those homemade potato chips may grow a trifle antsy at the tearoom ambiance that takes hold when the girls outnumber the boys; it's something about the lace, the pristine beige-on-beige color scheme, the treillage trio of rustic twigs that provide the sole adornment in this clean, open space. The men lay claim to their Viennese-style bentwoods nonetheless, soothed by Piaf and those ubiquitous Benedictine monks, spellbound by feisty, finely detailed food that shows all those run-of-the-mill bakery cafes how it could (and should) be done.

With any luck, Bistro Cuisine will grow more professional about the hours it keeps as it catches on. Takeout is only available until 5 p.m. -- scant help to the hordes of officeworkers in the vicinity -- and even that hour is, shall we say, flexible. One evening I arrived at 4:45 to pick up a takeout order that I had left behind at lunch, only to find the restaurant locked and dark. I look forward to the day when late diners are not treated to the anxiety-producing spectacle of chairs being hoisted atop tables shortly after the 3 p.m. lunch service concludes. And I'm taking bets on how long the schizoid idea of serving more casual items on plastic and the rest on china -- the logic of which escapes me -- will last. Not too long, I hope, because I'm going to be eating here often.

Bistro Cuisine, 4925 West Alabama, 871-9722.

Bistro Cuisine:
croque monsieur, $4.75;
French onion soup, $3.45;
Caesar salad, $4.50;
Cro Magnon salad, $5.95.

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