Sunday, November 17, 2013


Eastside Road, November 15, 2013—
ANOTHER BIRTHDAY DINNER rolled around — not mine, I hasten to say; a friend's — and how better to celebrate than dinner out, just the four of us, in a local bistro.

And just what is a bistro? I turn immediately to Wikipedia, who informs me
A bistro /ˈbiːstroʊ/, sometimes spelled bistrot, is, in its original Parisian incarnation, a small restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in a modest setting. Bistros are defined mostly by the foods they serve. French home-style cooking, and slow-cooked foods like cassoulet, a bean stew, are typical.

The origins of the word bistro are uncertain. Some say that it may derive from the Russian bystro (быстро), "quickly". According to an urban legend, it entered the French language during the Russian occupation of Paris in 1815. Russian officers or cossacks who wanted to be served quickly would shout "bystro." [2] However, this etymology is not accepted by several French linguists as there is, notably, no occurrence of this word until the end of the 19th century.[3] Others say the name comes from a type of aperitif, called a bistrouille [4] (or liqueur coffee), served in some reasonably priced restaurants.
The article in the French edition of Wikipedia has other things to say, leading with
Un bistro (ou bistrot) est un petit café, un débit de boissons et parfois un petit restaurant. À Paris notamment, mais aussi dans toute la France, notamment Lyon, des chefs cuisiniers connus ou célèbres ont dénommé « Bistrot » une ou plusieurs annexes de leur restaurant gastronomique, restaurant(s) à formule le plus souvent, où ils utilisent des produits moins coûteux et ne proposent qu'une carte relativement réduite.
(Further, this article reveals that there are about 35,600 cafés and bars in France; that each year, about 1,000 bars shut down, and another 600 new ones open.)

To me, the defining characteristics of a bistro are: a casual ambiance, even promoting informal conversation between tables; a cuisine that speaks more of grill and stove than of prep or pastry kitchen; and a perennial menu (though perhaps with a cycle of daily specials) which must feature certain stock items (this is the formule French Wikipedia mentions): steack-frites of course, with aïoli or hollandaise to dip the fries into (never any ketchup!); duck confit; perhaps cassoulet; sole meunière; a braised beef daube; lamb shanks; steak tartare. The menu is heavily oriented toward meat, but there will be a good and copious green salad, dressed with a walnut-oil vinaigrette; and probably also a salade Lyonnaise involving frisée, lardons, and a (barely) poached egg on top. I'm probably forgetting a few things. Something chickeny, no doubt.

There are two bistros near us that I like; we opted for the one closest to our friends' home. And there Lindsey and I shred a butter-lettuce salad and a plate of sardines poached in olive oil with a "chorizo spice", onions, and garlic — not, to my way of thinking, a bistro dish, but rather a nice one.

And then I went on to a lamb shank, the Friday special, cooked slowly in white wine and garlic as is correct. It was very good, though I prefer the shank sawn into two or three pieces rather than left whole, so the marrow can contribute to the reduction.

Sauvignon blanc, Preston of Dry Creek, 2011; Syrah, Acorn, 2008 (both quite nice)
Bistro 29, 620 Fifth Street, Santa Rosa, California; 707 546-2929

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