By Sara Liss
The goods: Every neighborhood deserves a Charlotte Bistro, an unpretentious and inviting spot where the food is as creative as the staff is friendly. The chef and owner is Elida Villarroel, a Venezuela native and graduate of the Institute of Paul Bocuse in Lyon-France. Her experience includes stints at Michelin-starred restaurants in France (including the renowned Michel Bras) and owning a “secret” restaurant in her home in Caracas where guests were treated to a private table and multiple-course dinners inspired by local seafood and seasonal produce. She brings that same level of attention to meals here, offering to create tasting menus for guests who want to sample the majority of the concise menu, and it gives the restaurant the feeling of dining at a chef’s table.
Ambiace: What’s most refreshing about this small restaurant, aside from its quaint dozen tables and cheerful vibe, is its resemblance to one of those anonymous yet revelatory Parisian bistros that you stumble into on a rainy Saturday night in the Sixteenth Arrondissement. The jewelbox space, located on the main drag of Gables restaurant row, is a bright tile-floored room with mismatched neo-Victorian wallpaper, crayola-colored chairs, small vases of fresh cut flowers and framed French prints adorning the walls.
The grub: Eclectic French fare. There are a few classics on the menu like onion soup gratinee, pheasant terrine and tarte tatin but for the most part this is imaginative market-inspired cuisine prepared using French techniques. Prices are moderate; starters are $7-$16 and most mains are less than $25.
Meals here start with complimentary toasted pita sticks and black olive tapenade flecked with parsley, and, depending on the day, an amuse bouche of smoked salmon or tomato confit braised in brown sugar. Go for the jumbo langoustines wrapped in crispy bacon and bathed in a coconut milk spiked with anise and cumin. The seared tuna here is crusted with gomasio powder, a Japanese seasoning made of toasted black and white sesame seeds and sea salt and served with caramelized cippolini onions and chunks of grilled pineapple. The lobster ravioli, delicate pasta pillows stuffed with ground lobster and herbs, are served in a saffron broth along with a hunk of butter-poached lobster tail. Mains include a grouper seared in hazelnut butter served with celery root puree and an artfully presented thyme and nutmeg marinated rack of lamb with a side of silky lavender potato puree.
Desserts include a cardamom-scented crème brulee and butter poached pear but it’s the Venezuelan-influenced chocolate “soup,” warm, velvety richness topped with homemade coffee ice cream that will inspire repeat visits.
Verdict: This chic Parisian-influenced newcomer will surprise you with ambitious food and a warm atmosphere.