RESTAURANT REVIEW: Bistro 61 

Building a Bistro: Thierry Goulard polishes a hidden gem, from the ground up

Bistro 61
French/Italian
Entrees: $12-$20
Serving Dinner, Tues.-Sat.
2004 Ashley River Road, West Ashley(843) 556-3354

The Highway 61 corridor in West Ashley is no gourmet Valhalla, but in some respects it's a bona fide string of culinary pearls. Inexpensive gems abound, edged in among body shops, apartment complexes, and defunct strip mall outlets that have spoilt the two-lane ribbon of asphalt from the Glenn McConnell Parkway to Bees Ferry Road. Hiding among all that low-rent schlock are a half dozen or so eateries, serving up a smorgasbord of flavors. The cheery little Sunflower Café serves the best stack of hot cakes west of the Ashley. GNS Deli, once a cult favorite downtown, dishes out delicious bowls of hummus and hot falafel next to an extravagant set of hookahs. Old favorites Penachio's and Easterby's deliver Southern Italian standards and all-you-can-eat seafood. And then there's Bistro 61, a nomad of sorts created after chef Thierry Goulard, former chef of crowd favorite Mia's Café on Highway 17 South, had a little falling out with the owner. He landed at the former/sometimes Nathan's Deli location, and has been slowly transforming the rather utilitarian space ever since.

It's definitely a work in progress, at least from an architectural standpoint. Nathan's tried on the dinner jacket previously, opening at night with the moniker "Café Napoli," but that incarnation proved unsuccessful — we found the Napoli food an unremarkable pile of cheap pasta and cheese, the room a mish-mash of odd furniture, with a quirky barn-like aesthetic that served fine for a New York-style Jewish breakfast deli, but was rather unsuited to the illusion of evening dining.

But Thierry Goulard is a culinary Rumpelstiltskin. Given what he has worked with in the past (Mia's was no Taj Mahal when he found it), the guy spins out good, affordable food from what seems an impossible situation. To be sure, Bistro 61 is still nothing to look at, but the beginnings of an interior facelift are underway and the menu represents a very good value.

The place is pretty much as advertised, an affordable French bistro, albeit with an Italian twist. In a time and place where the word "bistro" can mean anything from an over-hyped lunch café to a $30-a-plate restaurant, it's nice to see someone return to the basic concept of neighborhood food, a la Française. The menu is traditional, to a point, with appetizers, entrées, and desserts (crème brûlée and tiramisu), and a nightly selection of specials.

One can go for a caprese salad of fresh mozzarella and ripe tomatoes ($4.25), baked escargot with garlic butter ($5.50), and a big heap of Coq au Vin ($12.95), a traditional meal if there ever was one. Or something along the lines of an avocado and crab salad with a tangy tomato vinaigrette ($6.95). Local goat cheese tops steaming potato cakes, a tangle of arugula salad providing the perfect crisp background, and an herb-encrusted rack of lamb with shallot mashed potatoes ($17.95) finishing with a creative flourish.

Goulard cooks a mean grilled sea scallop dish ($15.25). He understands the value of simplicity, napping the scallops in only a sheen of beurre blanc. He cooks humble food — a side of traditional ratatouille goes for $2.95; the "chop chop garden salad" is $3.95 — but proves that even when faced with meager surroundings and a tight budget, returning to the roots of cuisine can be a satisfying enterprise.

My favorite offerings come with fries. Try the hot, crispy Fish and Chips ($13.95). Call me a Brit, but Goulard isn't such a Frog that he can't throw down the quintessential pub dish of the British Isles. It's nothing fancy (how could it be in a place like Bistro 61?), but it's good and it's cheap, and that's more than welcome these days. I get the mussels and French fries ($13.95). They rival the plump, steaming mussels out at Chez Fish and are nothing fancy — no trendy Merguez sausage or saffron cream broth — just a little butter and some herbs and such.

For all the great homespun food, I don't really like going to Bistro 61 yet. I don't like the atmosphere. I don't like the absence of a wine license (as of a week or two ago) or the cheap "free" glass of wine that you get (a leftover from the Café Napoli debacle). I don't like the thrift store look about the place, or the chintzy trinkets and such that line the walls. But I do like the direction Goulard is taking. Every time we visit, another piece of junk has left the building, a few more tables look renovated and ready to go, the kitchen seems cleaner (even if I can't comment on the bathroom situation), and the total effect moves more toward what I would call an acceptable environment. Just my opinion, of course, and I'll still come back and hope more do the same, because with time, Goulard and company are going to turn Nathan's Deli into something worth your time. Until then, it's probably the city's best hidden gem.

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