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A Diamond in the Rough 

Le Bistro du Beaujolais shines, despite some flaws.

It pays to be shellfish at Le Bistro du Beaujolais. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • It pays to be shellfish at Le Bistro du Beaujolais.

The golden-ager at the next table was petite, well-coifed, and in a state approaching ecstasy.

"That duck was so good," she sighed to her octogenarian companion. "It was all I could do to keep from moaning out loud."

I knew exactly what she meant. I, too, had ordered the succulent roasted duck breast, napped with a glorious ginger-honey sauce, and had likewise found myself nearly groaning with pleasure at every bite.

The delicious duck was just one of several outstanding dishes we've savored during visits to Le Bistro du Beaujolais in Westlake. While not everything has been of such high caliber, the kitchen's shortcomings are relatively minor and the large selection of dishes both familiar and exotic helps excuse an occasional slip.

The casual French restaurant is Georges and Claudie d'Arras's first venture in the United States, although Georges managed several restaurants in his native Lyon before the couple relocated to Northeast Ohio. Doing kitchen duty are Lyonnaise Chef Jerome Morgand and American Chef Martin Moran, who trained at The Refectory, a well-known French restaurant in Columbus.

Business has been slow to build since the restaurant opened in November, Georges acknowledges, and much of the interior remodeling he hoped to complete on the former Iron Gate restaurant has had to wait. Meantime, while the bistro's four dining rooms and tiny bar are entirely functional, the interior cries out for an infusion of distinctive style and more atmospheric lighting. Fortunately, the couple's charming Gallic accents, the friendly service, and the often-wonderful food go a long way toward making a meal here a pleasant experience.

But back to that duck. Roasted and sliced with the traditional thick layer of fat on top, the breast meat was rich, tender, and flavorful enough to hold its own against the sweet but vaguely fiery ginger-honey sauce and the shards of candied ginger that topped it. On the side came an artfully fanned portion of sugar-snap peas that, like all the bistro's vegetables, was slightly overdone by American standards. Claudie says this is intentional and typical of French preparation techniques. Whatever they may have lost in texture, the boiled vegetables more than made up for in flavor, both from having been panned with melted butter prior to serving and from their proximity to the delectable sauce that surrounded them on the plate.

An entrée of Filet du Boeuf (a large, very rare, meltingly tender beef filet) was also fine. It was kissed with a deep and gently spicy red-wine reduction sauce that enhanced every bite of the juicy meat. On the side came an assortment of vegetables that included sliced carrots, whole sugar-snaps, and julienned potatoes, with the novel addition of halved radishes. Even our radish-hater was delighted by these tender, pink babies, with their delicate taste reminiscent of kohlrabi or parsnips.

A medium-rare, pan-fried veal chop was also a hit. The moderately sized chop had been coated with diced hazelnuts before cooking and was moist and full of flavor. It came settled on a portion of limp asparagus spears and sided with a lovely bouquet of peppery raw arugula. The entire plate was lightly dressed with a mild and tangy balsamic vinaigrette that brightened the vegetables and added depth to the meat.

Seafood sorties included a lunch of sliced pan-fried salmon topped with a to-die-for orange-and-lemon butter sauce. Crisp and buttery along the edges, the fish remained light as a cloud within. And that sauce! Creamy, salty, and yet bright and zippy from the citrus, it would have made an old shoe taste delicious. The dish was sided by more of those well-done asparagus spears that I swept through the sauce like little paintbrushes.

A dinner of roasted monkfish — a firm-textured, nutty-flavored white fish sometimes called "poor man's lobster" — came topped with garlic-parsley butter and sided with the carrot-potato-pea-and-radish vegetable mélange. While the fresh fish was properly done and quite tasty, we had a trifling complaint with the quantity of the butter sauce, which was so plentiful that it nearly made the dish seem greasy.

However, an appetizer of escargot, served in an ephemeral puff pastry and drizzled with more of that same garlic-butter sauce, was heaven on a plate. The half-dozen fat snails snuggled inside the pastry were succulent and lusciously tender and, for diners who have spent years chewing on their rubbery counterparts in the vain quest for properly prepared escargot, the little fellows were an epiphany of flavor.

The other salads and appetizer dishes, while not bad, paled in comparison to the escargot. A large salad of tossed mesclun greens was crisp and simple, and was sided by three little rounds of toasted baguette, spread with an herbed ch&eagrave;vre. The goat cheese and the greens were both perfectly acceptable, but lacked any special distinction to help excite our palates.

A serving of carpaccio — thin slices of raw beef that the menu described as having been marinated in basil — was disappointingly bland, with no flavor beyond what came from a few shreds of Parmesan cheese and from the sharp vinaigrette on the ho-hum side salad.

An appetizer of thinly sliced Jambon de Parme (Parma ham, or prosciutto) was a mixed bag. The ham itself was very good, with the intense flavor and chewy, slightly dry texture we expect of this imported cured ham. But the luscious-sounding honey-roasted fig that the menu called for (and which had set our mouths to watering) turned out to be a few leathery slices of dehydrated fruit. And the promised mascarpone toast that was to accompany the dish tasted eerily like the ch&eagrave;vre toast on our other diner's plate.

But our biggest disappointment was the bread offering, a basket of nondescript white rolls with foil-wrapped butter. We sorely missed finding a thick-crusted, chewy baguette of French bread in our basket, especially with all the wonderful sauces that appeared later on and that cried out for being sopped up with a morsel of pain ordinaire.

Speaking of things we missed, we were surprised that there were no cheese selections, either as an appetizer or as a dessert, on the menu. The cheese course is a classic part of a typical French meal, and we would have expected to see it represented here in some form or another.

On the other hand, d'Arras has put together a wine list of excellent French cru Beaujolais; Syrah-based Côtes du Rhone reds and Viognier-based Côtes du Rhone whites; a handful of Bordeaux and Burgundy wines; and a few gems from both the Loire and Provençal regions. Some of the wines are available by the glass, but the bottles are generally so reasonably priced that there is no reason to deprive yourself of the pleasure.

Speaking of pleasures, in the province of delightful desserts, Le Bistro du Beaujolais is no slacker. We adored a large portion of rustic clafoutis — a dense egg-custard tart studded with juicy, fat black cherries — which came topped with whipped cream, cr&eagrave;me Anglaise, and cherry sauce. The dessert was delectably rich, not too sugary, and very European.

A beautiful fresh raspberry tart was outstanding, too. Its buttery crust was topped with fluffy pastry cream, upon which a wealth of perfect, whole berries had been artfully arranged. The ample serving arrived on a white platter dotted with fanciful swirls of red raspberry coulis.

A chocolate tart was likewise a charmer. This time, the crust had been filled with a rich semi-sweet chocolate mixture and sided with a scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream drenched in hot, homemade caramel sauce. A far cry from Mom's Jell-O pudding pie, we mumbled between mouthfuls.

However, our final dessert selection — lemon crêpes — was a downer. Our waitress told us it was the last portion remaining that evening, and that may explain why the three thin, folded crêpes were slightly dry and arrived with only the barest hint of flavor, apparently from having been brushed with scant amounts of lemon juice and sprinkled with powdered sugar. We had been expecting an actual filling of lemon curd or custard and felt very badly treated when we compared our spartan dessert to everyone else's fanciful sweets. (We even nibbled hopefully at one of the thin slices of lemon that topped the crêpes, just in case they might be spicy preserved fruit. But no, they were just raw and very, very sour.)

Still, we're sweet on Le Bistro du Beaujolais, which, like an uncut gem, sparkles with potential. A little fine-tuning in the kitchen and some sprucing up in the front of the house, and this pleasant dining spot will be another jewel on the Cleveland dining scene.

Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at ecicora@clevescene.com.

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