More Than a Bistro

Meauxbar Bistro is not exactly a hidden gem. Although it may not appear on the radar of the general dining public all that often and its location at 942 N. Rampart St. is not one that sees a great deal of foot traffic, there is no shortage of regular customers who love the food, the service and the ambiance. Even if the restaurant doesn’t make regular appearances in the local media, you’ll understand why it inspires such devotion after a meal or two.

Chef Matthew Guidry is from Meaux, La., and he graduated from the French Culinary Institute in 1987. He and his partner, Jim Conte, operated Paradise, a restaurant in Sag Harbor, N.Y., from 1995 until 2000. They opened Meauxbar Bistro in December 2003. The restaurant’s Web site describes it as “a sophisticated, casual eatery.” That’s true, but the “bistro” in the restaurant’s name is every bit as descriptive.

Traditionally, a bistro was a casual restaurant that served relatively inexpensive food and drink, and typically the menu featured more home-style cooking than haute cuisine. But “bistro” is defined more loosely these days. Leaving aside the restaurants that add the appellation as a marketing ploy, even well-meaning establishments use the term to denote a place that serves good food in a somewhat relaxed atmosphere.

Bistros were, ultimately, neighborhood restaurants, and that’s one aspect in which Meauxbar certainly keeps the faith. Although the crowds that frequent Meauxbar are not exclusively from the French Quarter neighborhood that surrounds it, there is a familiarity among the staff and customers that belies that fact. Walking into Meauxbar, even for the first time, feels comfortable.

The restaurant’s tile floors, mustard-yellow walls and white tablecloths give the dining room a sophisticated but still casual feel. A long curving piece of orange fabric hanging from the ceiling over the center of the room breaks up what would otherwise be a large, boxy space. A bar lines the rear wall, and it’s a comfortable place to have a drink as well as to sample the menu.

Meauxbar’s menu largely consists of classics: there’s an onion soup gratinée; salad lyonnaise with frisée, lardons, a soft-poached egg and a warm bacon vinaigrette; duck confit with garlic sautéed potatoes, mushrooms and a frisée salad; and of course steak frites, a 10-ounce New York strip with fries and tarragon butter that can be served with sauce au poivre or Roquefort cheese. (More on the steak in a bit.)

Chef Guidry adds Asian touches to some bistro classics, such as the moules frites, a classic dish in which Guidry cooks the mussels in a red curry broth with coriander and basil. Flounder en papillote is steamed in coconut milk with curry, ginger, lemon grass, tomato and shiitake mushrooms and served with steamed jasmine rice. Ginger crawfish dumplings come with sambal oelek and a sesame dipping sauce and are garnished with cilantro.

But again, the majority of the menu is more traditional. The trout Grenobloise, served with a lemon-caper beurre noisette, parsleyed potatoes and sautéed haricots verts, is a classic –– and for good reason. The brown butter gives a nutty flavor to the dish that’s similar to the meunière we see more often here but without the toasted flour inherent to that sauce. The steak tartare is one of my favorite renditions of the dish in New Orleans. The raw beef tenderloin is hand-chopped and combined with red onion, parsley, cornichons, capers and anchovy and then topped with a quail egg. If you’re a carnivore, you’ll enjoy it, I promise.

The caramelized onion tart with goat cheese and lardons is basically a quiche but with a lower ratio of eggs to flavorings. The large wedge has a melting texture and is very rich –– that’s “rich” in a good way, my friends. It’s fantastic with a glass of dry white wine as a starter: sweet onions balanced against sharp goat cheese and rich bacon with a flaky crust underneath the whole affair.

The steak frites is one of several items I have a hard time passing up when I get to Meauxbar. The steak is cooked to order, and the fries are excellent. A good strip steak can be a thing of beauty unto itself, but when you’ve got a chef with Guidry’s skill and attention to detail in the kitchen putting together a sauce au poivre that does honor to the name, you can hardly lose. The menu provides an option for Roquefort with the steak, but I’ve never gotten past the sauce au poivre, so I can’t really give you advice in that regard. (Order the sauce au poivre).

The pan-fried Des Allemands frog legs Provençal come with a saffron-fennel slaw and a tomato confit, but what was most remarkable about the dish was how absolutely perfectly the frog legs were fried. The batter was crisp and tempura-light, covering small, juicy legs that burst with flavor. It took me three legs to get to the slaw, which, as it turns out, was a mistake because the combination of the slaw and the fried legs made the whole thing even better. “I liked the frog legs” is what I’m trying to say.

Guidry keeps his regular customers happy by keeping the main menu full of standards and mixes things up with a specials menu that changes every few days. The other night, the specials included potage Dubarry, a roasted cauliflower soup; “mac and cheese,” which featured baked ziti with mushroom duxelles, goat and Gruyère cheeses and truffle oil; crispy veal sweetbreads with lentils du Puy, foie gras butter and truffle oil; a pâté de campagne; a shrimp-and-asparagus risotto with a wild mushroom marmalade; and pan-roasted salmon with truffled mashed potatoes, wild mushrooms, radicchio and a mushroom vinaigrette.

There is a limited selection of desserts, which include a warm chocolate cake; a coconut sorbet; and, on the night I dined, a sableuse (French butter cake) with strawberries macerated in Grand Marnier, topped with whipped cream. I’m not a huge fan of sweets, but the sableuse gave me a Proustian memory of the pound cake my grandmother served with Ponchatoula strawberries and whipped cream. I won’t say the sableuse was that good, but it was pretty awesome.

Service is friendly without being overly familiar. Even when the restaurant is full, which it frequently is, you won’t be ignored. I’ve enjoyed every meal I’ve had at Meauxbar over the past few years, and I always regret the time that passes between visits. Alas, the life of a food writer means I don’t get to eat frequently at the same restaurants, but I may have to make an exception for Meauxbar Bistro.

Contact the restaurant at 569-9979. Service is dinner only, Tuesday through Saturday, from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.


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