If there's one high-end restaurant we thought we could count on for consistency, it was The Bistro, which for years has turned out exquisite meals from its inventive kitchen on California Avenue.
For that reason, I thought it would be the perfect place to take the most interesting couple in Bakersfield (and, no, their pictures are not plastered on billboards hawking beer).
Graham is an oil guy who, like many, has lived in Bakersfield off and on for decades, in between stints in the Mideast, Europe and South America. Lily has worked in international finance. Sitting down with them, you hear tales of learning as a child to fish on the Red Sea, driving on the French Riviera in a brother's custom-made Porsche, birthday parties in Oman or Cairo, flights to Paris in British Airways business class. It's like Ernest and Ernestina Hemingway.
Graham's favorite job posting was three years in Argentina, a land he grew to love. Insisting that vegetables are for children, the people there eat simply prepared, grilled, grass-fed beef all the time. Both educated me on how different areas of the world define weekends (largely depending on dominant religions and social customs), and that many countries prefer late dinner times (9 or 10 p.m.)
This being early-bird America, we didn't hold out that long for our recent dinner visit to The Bistro.
We ordered a variety of foods, starting with two appetizers: the artichoke hearts tempura ($10) and the crab cakes ($14). I used to find the artichoke hearts here to be a bit daintier, with cream cheese and a thin batter. Now the execution is such that it looks like a fritter bomb, and I'm not sure I like the change. It's physically more laborious to eat. I had no issue with the panko-encrusted crab cakes, with red remoulade sauce on the side and a bit of color provided by red pepper bits.
For entrees, Graham selected the grilled swordfish with citrus-olive-rosemary butter and fresh vegetables ($23), my regular companion ordered the sauteed salmon with a charred tomato vinaigrette, creamy herb polenta and fresh vegetables ($22), I ordered the Barcelona steak, a prime flat-iron steak with a smoked red pepper sauce ($27), and Lily ordered the blackened bleu steak, a strip loin with a bleu cheese fondue ($31). All dinners came with a sprig of rosemary stuck like a flag pole in the potatoes or polenta. I wanted to salute it.
My biggest problem was inconsistent execution by the kitchen and an absence of the boldness that I've seen on occasion here (two years ago, for example, they offered various pizzas that were an interesting gamble). Now, with items such as the herb butter-based mashed potatoes on the steak plates, there's an overwhelming blandness and timidity, sort of a country club kitchen effect -- a fear of offending with startling flavors.
Graham's swordfish was unevenly grilled -- dry on the outside, perfect in the center -- the saving grace being the melting disk of flavored butter that was sliding off as it melted. Yet the vegetables (asparagus, zucchini, one carrot) on all plates were severely undercooked, a rare problem in most area restaurants, I admit.
Lily's steak was supposed to be blackened, but I saw no evidence of that. However, the bleu cheese sauce was as impressive as our waitress said it was.
My companion's salmon was such a thin strip -- no more than 21/2 inches wide -- that I worried about her protein intake. The vinaigrette was subdued, not really enhancing the fish.
The best sauce at the table was the smoked red pepper on my thin but perfectly prepared flat-iron steak. It was graceful, interesting and more nuanced than anything else we tried that night. There is a flash of inventiveness that should be repeated.
Many of the desserts are not made on the premises, and thankfully our waitress was forthcoming with that information. We did sample one that was made there, an apple tart ($8) that was absolutely a must order. It was a woven pastry disk with wonderful apple slices on top and a rich vanilla ice cream on the side.
One bit of good news: Still on the menu is the restaurant's specialty, the amazing macaroni and cheese (made with sauteed chicken, pancetta, white truffle oil and Boursin cheese in a light cream sauce, $17).
An interesting dish we didn't get a chance to try is the lamb chops with pomegranate molasses ($24). That's an intriguing combination we'll have to go back for. The Italian rib dip beef sandwich ($13) also sounds great for lunch.
Be prepared for a bit of sticker shock on the wine list, especially considering the offerings involved, mostly from the Central Coast and Napa.
Service was solid, though our forks were taken away with the appetizers and it took some work to get them replaced.