You can drool over only so many All-Clad sauciers, though, or ogle so many loaves of shapely ciabatta bread, before you're bound to feel a trifle peckish. And at that point, you most certainly should stow your treasures in the trunk of the two-seater and stroll over to Michael Longo's casually upscale Market Square Bistro, situated at the northern end of the plaza.
Longo, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and former staffer at Piccolo Mondo, Sfuzzi, and Youngstown's Paonessa's, opened his stylish restaurant nearly six years ago. His large and sophisticated repertoire of mostly Mediterranean-inspired foods (with a fairly pronounced Asian accent thrown in for good measure) gets revised several times each year. But while the winter menu, from which we made our selections, will have undergone its spring shakedown by the time you read this, it is safe to predict that Longo's style -- with its emphasis on a multitude of flavors and plenty of rich ingredients -- will remain intact regardless of the weather.
Take the popular appetizer, Wonton-Wrapped Tiger Shrimp, as an example of that style at its finest. The six large shrimp had been tightly rolled in wonton noodles and deep-fried until the contrast between their crunchy coating and their succulent interiors was almost unbearable. The crusty beauties were then settled on pools of creamy wasabi-powered aioli and sweet dark soy, and centered around a jumble of soft sesame-seeded wakame (a mild-flavored, dark-green Japanese seaweed). Not only was the dish a delicious blend of textures (crisp versus yielding) and tastes (sweet, salty, and hot), but it was also lovely and amusing to behold, with the wonton-wrapped shrimp resembling miniature cannoli, and the dark and light sauces tricking the eye into envisioning chocolate syrup and crème Anglaise.
Other enjoyable starters included an intensely aromatic cream of wild mushroom soup, made surprisingly hearty with lots of meaty portobello slices; and a weekday soup du jour, a bright and summery tomato broth spiked with white cannellini beans and leaves of shiny green spinach.
However, another appetizer, Escargot Gratin, seemed to take the "more is better" concept one step too far, until what probably should have been the primary flavor note -- the mild and delicate snails -- was lost in a hubbub of ingredients that included elbow macaroni, diced tomato, garlic, parsley, hazelnuts, and Romano and mozzarella cheeses. Beyond its lack of focus, the dish was terrifically heavy, as the result of the thick layer of tangerine oil that blanketed its surface.
A similarly busy Friday-night special teamed up medallions of roasted squab with veal sweetbreads, seared foie gras, tissue-thin slices of black truffle, and two sauces -- a port reduction and a balsamic syrup -- then artfully mounted them atop parsley-infused, roasted-garlic mashed potatoes. Each component of the dish was perfection: The veal sweetbreads were tender, the foie gras was meltingly light, the squab -- a dark meat reminiscent of duck -- was juicy, and the truffles were smoky and sensuous. But while any one of the chi-chi ingredients could have carried a simpler (and perhaps more satisfying) entrée by itself, they lost their pristine individual identities when sauced and stacked together in one dish -- reminding us that sometimes the whole can be less than the sum of its parts.
Still, it seems almost churlish to complain about a dish being too lavish. And most of our other selections were far less overwrought.
A humble pan-roasted chicken breast -- a lovely, well-trimmed, and gently cooked piece of meat -- was converted into fabulous fowl after getting the Longo treatment. No dry dieter's alternative this; the marinated and flour-dredged breast was drizzled with a flavorful Cabernet reduction sauce and more balsamic syrup, and served with a bountiful harvest of crisp asparagus spears and roasted-garlic mashed potatoes studded with bits of salty Smithfield ham.
A pasta dish -- M.L.'s Baked Macaroni and Cheese -- hugged our taste buds with its sauce of mellow Spanish Manchego, cheddar, Romano, and smoked Gouda cheeses, fresh chives, and cream, wrapped around firm elbow macaroni. It was still plenty rich, but the smoky counterpoint of the chicken and the Gouda kept the mac 'n' cheese from seeming too heavy.
Similarly, an entrée of grilled veal meatloaf, floating above a cloud of those roasted-garlic mashed potatoes and sided by asparagus spears, was enhanced, not overwhelmed, by a sweet and savory veal demi-glace -- the usual topping of wild mushroom gravy being unavailable this particular day, according to our server. And a grilled eight-ounce beef filet was of excellent quality and presented in a fairly straightforward fashion, with more of that savory Cabernet reduction sauce and the by-now-familiar accompaniments of garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus.
Entrées come with a modest Bistro Salad of mixed greens tossed in a basic balsamic vinaigrette; they can be gussied up with an avalanche of Maytag blue cheese crumbles for an additional dollar. And although the novelty of olive-oil dips in place of butter has long since faded, the bistro's version -- with a fruity, artisanal Greek olive oil, drizzled over a thick bed of freshly grated Romano and served with slices of warm, housemade herb-and-black-olive focaccia -- is a notch above the rest.
Pastry Chef Tim Connors is in charge of the breadmaking, and his dessert menu is also something to cheer about. Admittedly, the ubiquitous crème brûlée puts in an appearance, and our server said tiramisu sometimes shows up as a special. Still, we were delighted by such unusual offerings as the beautiful Strawberry Stack: leaves of frangible phyllo layered with sliced strawberries and a mixture of whipped cream, cream cheese, and honey, and sided with colorful dollops of fresh pineapple-and-orange "salsa" and a grassy-green mint syrup. Another favorite, moist bread pudding, streaked with veins of melted white chocolate, sprinkled with plenty of chewy, sweet-and-tart dried cherries, and drenched with amber caramel sauce, was more than enough for two of us, although it was so good that we were loath to leave a single bite behind. And a circular serving of banana cream pie, with thick banana slices cuddled down into a bed of ephemerally light banana custard, blanketed with snowy drifts of real whipped cream, and tucked into a sandy-textured chocolate shortbread-cookie crust, was a marvel, even by today's "upscale comfort food" standards. (The swirls of buttery caramel on the side didn't hurt a bit, either.)
The restaurant's appearance is comfortable and smart, if not nearly as opulent as the menu might imply. The room takes its decor cues from American architect Frank Lloyd Wright's designs, especially a deco-style motif of colorful geometric shapes that is repeated on a mural, a wallpaper border, and a framed poster. Several paintings of Fallingwater and a number of framed designs of other Wright structures complete the artwork. Uncluttered tabletops, made of stone-like laminate trimmed in golden oak, support white cloth napkins, hefty flatware, and the sturdy white plates and bowls that the chef favors. (We never missed the absent salt and pepper shakers, although they would have been made available on request, because Longo's food comes to the table generously salted and seasoned.) A small bar is separated from the main dining space by a glass partition; however, two wall-mounted television sets, tuned to sports, are visible throughout most of the restaurant. Golf tournaments and national cheerleading trials were an odd accompaniment to meals of foie gras and filet, we found ourselves thinking.
During our two visits, black-clad servers have been professional and friendly. Both a weekday waitress and a weekend waiter were downright enthusiastic about the food they were serving, always ready to explain a dish or make a recommendation. And all the restaurant's guests -- both the carefree crowd in blue jeans and T-shirts, and the nose-to-the-grindstone group in their business garb -- seemed to receive the same friendly attention.
If only those oft-invoked little piggies had stopped at Market Square Bistro on their way back from their shopping trip, I bet they would have squealed "yum-yum-yum" all the way home.
Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at [email protected].