Bistrot is French for bistro. Savory-crusted lamb brochette is French for delicious. And the Craigie Street Bistrot, complete with both the francophone spelling and the tender lamb dish, is the most palatable French lesson to be had near the Square, with apologies to any culinary creativity prospering in 9 a.m. French A sections. The three-week-old eatery is a sweet infusion of metropolitan France in the cozy residential neighborhood of Craigie Circle, a 10-minute walk from the either the Quad or the river. The bistro is the latest tenant in this ground floor space, and chef Tony Maws opened shop just a month after the previous restaurant, Butterfish, closed its doors. The quick renovations feature red leather banquettes, muted tan walls covered with Toulouse-Lautrec-style posters and muted lighting.
The menu, playfully presented as loose sheets on a clipboard, varies slightly day to day, so choice on any given night is limited. Last Friday night, chef Tony Maws offered five appetizers, ranging from $9-13, and five entrees from $17-21. Even so, the waiter sensed decision-making might be difficult. His two cents were liberally proffered. “I don’t mean to be the ‘everything’s good’ guy, but really it is,” said Will Beuscher, the pink-shirted waiter, who is ponytailed and wizened and has a masters in education. The lamb appetizer ($9), served with hen of the woods mushrooms and red khuri squash puree, melted off the fork, cooked perfectly pink in the middle. Its only fault really was the overload of three slices where one would have whet the appetite sufficiently. Maws is good on side-of-the-plate gems. He serves hen of the woods mushrooms and watermelon radishes on the side of the pan-roasted skate wing ($19) and vegetables are spring-like even in late September.
The only blemish in the evening, came with the other appetizer, Pastis-steamed mussels ($10). The mussels, swimming in a salty, buttery broth, featured Craigie Street Bistrot sweet chile peppers pickled in homemade brine. The effect was very much of-the-sea, but ideally more of the homemade brine would have stayed at home.
Before serving the main courses, Beuscher offered culinary advice and philosophizing. The immense skate came with a tutorial on how to cut sideways to avoid severing ligaments. Topped with tomato and parsley garnish, the gently flavored fish flaked easily but was definitely upstaged by the meat. The skirt steak ($20), served with potatoes, carrots and a chunk of marrow-filled bone, came with another lesson. While diners used to suck marrow out of the bone, hence the term “sucking the marrow out of life,” these days the bone comes sliced in half and the marrow oozes off with a nudge from the knife point. “I don’t know what that means about life, that you only need to poke it with a knife,” Beuscher muses. Nothing was revealed on this point, but the skirt steak itself was a revelation in rich flavor, cooked perfectly and consistently pink.
Homemade espresso ice cream situated on a slab of dense chocolate mousse ($9) rounded out the meal, pushing it over the top into blissed-out gustatory excess.
The only real problem with Maws is that he needs more confidence. Portions overwhelm the plates, perhaps because this is Maws’ first solo venture and he is eager to impress. He should trust his remarkable skill and know that one piece of perfectly prepared lamb serves him better than three. But generosity runs in the family. After a tour of the kitchen, Marjorie Maws, Tony’s mother and the current hostess, offered her satiated customers a loaf of bread or two. But everyone had already had more than enough to eat—thanks, mom.