The Bistro at Maison de Ville first opened its doors in 1986, though it feels as if the restaurant at 733 Toulouse St. has been around even longer. I certainly had the impression that the restaurant had been around a long time when I first dined there with my father in 1986 or 1987. The timeless vibe the restaurant possesses may be the result of its classic bistro décor. The dark-red walls are topped by cove ceilings, and a long leather banquette lines one wall of the narrow dining room. Each table is covered in pressed white cotton and adorned with a small vase of flowers. Mirrors behind the banquette give the small room a somewhat larger feel and reflect what little light enters from the street.
In its early days, the restaurant was a launching pad for young chefs. Susan Spicer, John Neal and Anne Kearney are only a few of the talents to have run the galley kitchen before moving on to success in their own restaurants. For the past 15 years, however, the position of chef has stabilized under Greg Picolo. Reviews of the restaurant habitually mention that it possesses a small but devoted following. That’s true, and I’m one of that number, due in large part to Picolo’s skill at turning out consistently excellent food.
There’s a French underpinning to Picolo’s food, but like most contemporary chefs, he’s not limited to the classic repertoire. A pâté Provençal served with cornichons and croutons ($13) shares space on the appetizer menu with crawfish rémoulade in a fried onion cup ($11) and alligator sausage with sautéed spinach over fontina cheese waffles ($10).
At a recent lunch, I started with a special: pan-fried sweetbreads with a shiitake mushroom jus over a potato-bacon croquette and sautéed arugula. It was outstanding, and when I asked chef Picolo why it wasn’t on the regular menu, he said that he had trouble selling enough sweetbreads to justify it. I got the impression that it’s a special he intends to run regularly, and I’d absolutely recommend it. Like just about everything else I’ve had at the Bistro, the sweetbreads were cooked perfectly, with a light crust on the exterior giving way to a creamy center. Many recipes for sweetbreads call for them to be pressed, but Picolo’s version retains the sweetbreads’ natural shape, which I prefer. The croquette –– really more of a cake –– was not overwhelmed by bacon, and the jus –– sauteed shiitake mushrooms combined with stock –– was a perfect, earthy accompaniment.
The moules frites at the Bistro are the standard for the dish in New Orleans. The mussels are served in a broth of white wine and butter, with a generous portion of excellent fries, all topped with mayonnaise, as is the custom in Belgium. I always associated the dish with the Bistro’s longtime maitre d’, Patrick Van Hoorebeek, who hails from Belgium. Although Patrick has moved on to Restaurant August, the mussels are still excellent, and as an entree at lunch cost $18.
Of the items on the dinner menu, I’ve never gone wrong by ordering lamb, and when the venison osso bucco is available, it’s outstanding. Picolo is one of only a few local chefs to consistently feature frog legs on the menu, and his preparations are always worth ordering. The current lunch menu features panéed legs with a bacon-and- leek cream for $13. In the past, he’s served them as “grillades” over cheese grits to equally good effect. Picolo’s grilled salmon “De Salvo” ($16 at lunch) features the grilled fish over mixed greens, with asparagus, tomatoes and a smoked-garlic vinaigrette that also turns up on the house mixed- greens salad.
The wine list is small, but there are ample choices by the glass or by the bottle. Service has changed a bit since the restaurant re-opened in 2007. The staff are not the most experienced you’ll find, but they’re friendly and efficient. This is not a restaurant at which you should expect several wait staff at your elbow during the meal, but though they aren’t going to make you forget Van Hoorebeek’s expertise in pairing wine with food, they get the job done.
There is a patio in the rear of the restaurant that requires a walk past the diminutive kitchen. In recent months, Picolo added an enclosed canopy to the courtyard. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it because the open air was very nice. It’s certainly useful during inclement weather, though, and more than one person has expressed affection for the change. The restaurant has space for around 32 in the dining room and another dozen or so on the patio. As a result, you should call for reservations, particularly on the weekend or for lunch on Friday. I had no problem securing a seat on a recent weekday, but I’d still recommend calling them at (504) 528-9206 if you plan on going.