536 Belle Station Blvd.
Entrée Prices: Moderate ($14-19)
Serving: Lunch & Dinner (Tues.–Sat.), Sunday Brunch
The neighborhood bistro concept is risky. The basic idea is to offer "upscale fare at reasonable prices" or "downtown restaurant quality without the hassle of going downtown." It can work, and there are a few spots around town that manage to pull it off. More often than not, though, the neighborhood bistro tends to flop in the middle — neither high enough quality to justify the price nor laid-back enough to be a comfortable neighborhood favorite.
Bistro 536 is one of the latest places to give it a go. They're in the old Seel's Fish Camp location, which is rather hidden away in the Belle Station shopping center off Long Point Road. They've kept a few of the old fish camp appointments inside the storefront, like the faux tin roof and clapboard siding, which are now painted a dark green. A row of four booths with red leather seats line the left wall, and about a dozen four- and six-tops fill the middle. The small bar on the right has a very basic selection of liquor along with a lineup of good beers and wine.
It's a very basic setting that neither excites nor offends, but the details matter. You can fumble one or two, but the experience of a restaurant is really the compilation of all the minor elements of the evening. It's OK to have a table with no cloth on it, but there really should be some sort of coaster or bev nap for the drinks. They're the kind of finer points you don't notice until they're missing. And, when it comes to dishes that try to throw a little twist on the standard preparation, that twist needs to add something complementary and not jar against the main flavors of the plate.
Take the lobster ravioli ($7.50). The pasta is nice and toothsome, but the filling is rather fishy, and the sauce — a saffron aioli — seems thin and surprisingly bland. The big mound of parsley is simply a green distraction, its crisp, almost gritty texture and raw flavor are quite dissonant with the rest of the dish.
The blue crab and sweet corn pot pie ($8) is a promising appetizer. The creamy pot pie comes complete with corn, carrots, and potatoes, topped with fluffy biscuits, with crab inside instead of chicken. It's a filling and homey starter, though it could definitely use a little salt, and the "herb salad" that serves as garnish is just a little pile of mesclun with some tomato and no dressing of any sort.
The entrées are exactly what you would expect to find in a modern-day bistro: a selection of fish (grouper, salmon, tilapia), fowl (chicken breast, duck breast), and beef (NY strip, short ribs, beef medallions) teamed with all the usual suspects like mashed potatoes, risotto, gnocchi, polenta, and roasted fingerling potatoes.
The pan-seared salmon ($16) is a solid if unremarkable dish. The fish is nicely cooked with a brown, crispy sear and tender, pink middle, and the roasted spaghetti squash and sautéed green beans go well with it. But the accompanying walnut apple butter is served cold — a temperature contrast that doesn't work right with warm fish and vegetables.
The pork loin ($15) is served with horseradish mashed potatoes and a bourbon vanilla cream, a combination that is one of the more intriguing things on the menu. Intriguing, unfortunately, doesn't necessarily translate to tasty. The pork loin is lightly breaded and seared a golden brown, and the super-sweet vanilla sauce combines with the breading to make a concoction that is so dessert-like you almost expect a cherry on top. The best thing about the plate is the grilled asparagus, which is crisp and has a nice char to it.
The bistro runs nightly specials, and a recent one featured grilled scallops over a black pepper risotto ($18). The scallops are quarter-sized and cooked through with just the faintest of grill marks on the exterior, so there's none of that deep brown char that can make good scallops great. The grains in the risotto are properly firm without being too crunchy, but they lack the buttery creaminess typical of risotto while being choked with big shards of black pepper that overwhelm everything else. Admittedly, the dish does plainly advertise "black pepper risotto," but it's just too much. Rather than a few pleasant pungent bursts, I found my mouth scorched and tingling after finishing the plate. The risotto is garnished with a tomato vinaigrette that is quite delicious, but it's too little, too late against all the pepper.
I do give Bistro 536 good marks for its desserts. The chocolate on chocolate cake ($5) has triple layers of rich, dense cake interspersed with chocolate cream. It's so delicious that even the little swirl of what seemed like canned whipped cream couldn't harm it.
For the neighborhood bistro concept to work, it has to strike the right balance of price, atmosphere, and quality of cooking. Serial restaurateur Sal Parco has mastered his version of that formula by offering entrees that are large, solid, and have a few interesting twists but still come in consistently under the magic $10 mark. Other neighborhood spots can get away with entrée prices in the high teens because they have an unexpectedly high quality of cooking or something particularly inviting and unusual about the atmosphere to justify it. Bistro 536, unfortunately, comes up a little short on each side of the formula.