Server Georges D'Arras swoops down upon the high-chair-bound toddler like a peregrine falcon nailing a fine, fat pigeon, snatching up the soaring candleholder at almost the exact moment the kid lets it fly. It's a testament to D'Arras's innate diplomacy that little Bubba's mommy greets the server's intervention with an apologetic smile, while the long-suffering couple at the next two-top want to leap to their feet and embrace him.
And D'Arras's perfectly timed save was just one of perhaps 20 tasks to which he was attending simultaneously. While he was obviously under the gun -- it's a Saturday night, after all, and the Beachclub Bistro is rocking -- the stress seems to roll off him like Wesson on Teflon. Patience is a virtue when a significant portion of your clientele is composed of young couples and families, making a deliciously inexpensive dinner out of a 9-inch pie or two and, perhaps, a selection from the 50-plus-bottle beer list, the even more extensive wine menu, or the collection of cocktails, martinis, and after-dinner drinks.
Owner Greg Jurcisin has been slowly transforming the two-year-old bistro's image from that of gourmet pizzeria to casually upscale eatery, and the recently released summer menu prominently features snazzy fish and seafood preparations introduced by executive chef David Hopkins, formerly of Blake's Seafood Grill. Still, Jurcisin wisely vows that he'll never entirely pull the plug on those fragrant, thick-crusted pizzas.
For one thing, judging from the steady stream of neighbors sneaking in the side door with lean and hungry looks, then skipping out with stacks of carryout pizza boxes, attempts to curtail the pie trade would probably spark a riot. For another, you just can't buy the kind of streetside advertising that Jurcisin gets from the seductive aromas of yeast, tomato, garlic, and cheese that his pizzas send wafting down the street.
But most of all, the pizzas are just plain delicious, with tender crusts, finely diced toppings, and big, savory flavors. Take the Beachland Club, for instance, a rich but emphatically greaseless montage of red sauce, spinach, onion, bacon, and Asiago and smoked mozzarella cheeses; or the Henn Mansion, topped with a haunting blend of spicy barbecue sauce, garlicky bits of chicken, crescents of roasted celery, and fat crumbles of sharp blue cheese.
After paging through the Beach Club's bargain-priced list of boutique wines, we weren't at all surprised to learn that Jurcisin is also a wine merchant; his Corner Beverage and Humidor is located near the bistro, at 923 East 222nd Street. From the menu's thoughtful organization by style and price to the fact that the majority of bottles check in at $25 or less, this is clearly the work of someone who believes in sharing his own passion for the grape. The capper is Jurcisin's collection of almost six dozen wines by the half-bottle; the reasonable prices (from $10 to $22) and smaller size are an unbeatable combo for parties of one or two, as well as for those who would like to match a red wine to their first-course pizza, say, and a white to their second-course fish. (And not only are half-bottles usually more cost-efficient than by-the-glass pours; they also come with the guarantee of freshness -- which can't always be said of wines purchased by the glass.)
But of course, the Beachclub is more than a pizza-and-booze joint. Paper-topped tables, black cloth napkins, flattering lighting, and background jazz give the smoke-free dining room true bistro style; if the separate smoking-permitted lounge feels somewhat less cozy, with harsher lighting and undressed tabletops, it still offers the same warm brick walls, high tin ceilings, and friendly vibe.
Chef Hopkins's small, moderately priced à la carte menu begins with dishes like sautéed calamari, PEI mussels, and wild-mushroom-and-artichoke spread; moves onto crisp, well-appointed salads (the side spring mix is a favorite, with its assorted leaf lettuces, crumbled Gorgonzola, slivers of dried apricot, and finely minced macadamia nuts); meanders through a few Italian-style options; and then zeros in on fish, typically plated with unusual sauces and sides. (At lunch, the lineup is smaller, but the concept is pretty much the same.)
A Saturday-night special of organic, farm-raised salmon seemed to showcase Hopkins's style. Very rare, with a buttery delicacy, the diaphanous filet was draped across a raft of al dente green beans. In turn, the green beans were stacked on a layer of purple Thai sticky rice; the rice was neatly arranged over a tangle of crisp, sesame-rich wakame salad. Unusual finishing touches included two ivory-colored cubes of goat-cheese custard and a pool of ginger-garlic-chile sauce that was piquant, but not overwhelming. Moist versus crisp, creamy versus spicy, hot versus cool -- Hopkins balanced the dish's dichotomies with subtlety and nuance. On the other hand, a regular menu item of rare pan-seared yellowfin tuna, dusted with Five Spice Powder and divvied into velvety slices, seemed to wander a little off course: In the absence of the perky wakame, the sticky rice tasted bland, while twin pools of chile-garlic sauce and too-sweet and too-salty sesame-teriyaki syrup, along with curlicues of fiery wasabi cream, were relentlessly overbearing. As a result, the dish added up to little more than a handful of ingredients cohabiting on a plate.
Among the Italian-accented entrées, twin wedges of Lasagna Florentine, prettily separated by a thick, savory Parmesan tuille, tasted rich and zesty, with alternating layers of pasta, spinach, and ground beef beneath a mantle of melted cheese. Meantime, the homemade marinara hit exactly the right mark between tart and sweet, and was so divinely condensed from slow cooking that we could scoop it up with a fork. However, the somewhat more ambitious rosemary-garlic chicken never entirely took flight: While the boneless, skinless breast meat was tender as all get out and the risotto, studded with sun-dried tomato, was creamy and light, the seared red Swiss chard that separated the chicken from the rice was fibrous. And dollops of red-pepper coulis, seasoned with tarragon and Chardonnay, were pretty and colorful, but almost sugary in their sweetness.
Dessert options are limited to homemade tiramisu and cannoli, and commercial white-chocolate cheesecake, plus the occasional nightly special. On a weeknight, we tried the chocolate bombe, with its molten, orange-flavored core; despite D'Arras's recommendation, it turned out to be merely run-of-the-mill (and at $6, a side scoop of ice cream might have helped). But full-bodied coffee, in sturdy mugs, provided a happy ending -- even though we were surprised that the half-and-half came in plastic tubs, rather than in a pitcher.
On the next visit, though, the tiramisu proved considerably more amusing: Sweet and moist, with a head of mascarpone as creamy and dense as cheesecake, it might not have been a trendsetter, but it tasted mighty fine. In fact, something similar can be said about the Beachclub, itself: Authentic, handsome, and friendly, this little bistro may not be cutting-edge, but patrons who discover it will feel sharp as a knife.
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