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Bistro leads by example

May 13, 2007|By SAVORY SAM

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - I had been in the mood for a salade nioise. I don't know why, but I wanted a serving of the distinctive, raw veggie salad originally served in the south of France.

So when the Savory Sams visited Stone Soup Bistro in Shepherds-town, W.Va., and I saw salade nioise on the menu, I jumped and was immediately glad.

Stone Soup Bistro is a southern European-style, casual, fine dining spot on West German Street in Shepherdstown. Servers wear jeans and T-shirts. Lighting is muted. Off-white walls and old, wide-plank floors lend an Old World quality. And the food is among the best in the Tri-State.

The family visited twice within a week. Our first dinner was especially memorable; three of us visited on a drizzly, gray evening.

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We climbed up massive, stone steps and entered into the dining room. We stood in the largest of several joined dining rooms that give Stone Soup Bistro the look of a house. We had called ahead for a table - that should be standard operating procedure at this popular bistro - and were immediately seated in what appeared to be a hallway.

The doorway-turned-window looked out on a tall slice of moody, rainy sidewalk. The view inside was cozy and warm. Two other tables shared our dining "room," and beyond them, a stairway climbed upward. Japanese lanterns spilled soft lighting on eggshell-colored walls. Zen-like black-and-white photos provided a place for the eye to rest.

A crisp, ironed white tablecloth lay under a large square of white paper. Joyfully, we pulled out pens and began to doodle.

Our waitress brought menus and asked about drinks. We tried a mixed-berry martini, something unusual for us. It was a light, summery mix of strawberry vodka and a blueberry liqueur. Tasty, but then we turned to our beverage of choice - wine. We ordered a bottle of Barossa Shotfire shiraz - deep red and full-bodied.

We also ordered appetizers, and sooner than expected, they arrived at the table. I love mixing food pairings, and my salade nioise, served on a broad white plate, had plenty to keep me busy - capers, Kalamata olives, red peppers, slices of hard-cooked egg, crispy greens, roma tomatoes, barely cooked string breans and a couple slices of cold, seared tuna steak. Wow.

We also had Brazilian empanadas - deep-fried foldovers stuffed with chopped shiitake mushrooms, dried cherries, leeks and goat cheese and served with a plum tomato sauce - and cold, smoked salmon piled on grilled bread and served with lime-aioli sauce and slices of red onion.

"This is the best salmon I've ever had," noted the youngest member of the Savory Sam clan, a vegetarian who eats fish. "It's almost like jerky but tender."

My partner admired the tuna but wasn't keen on the raw middle. She nibbled on the seared parts.

Warm, crusty bread slices served with a small bowl of oil and balsamic vinegar completed the first course.

Everything was fresh and of high quality. Simple ingredients were prepared well in creative ways. Sauces were flavorful. Some foods were raw, some foods were lightly steamed or grilled or roasted to bring out flavors and textures.

Why can't all restaurants follow this example?

Our dinner entres were similarly excellent. We shared three. From the menu, we ordered homemade spaghetti with baby ramps, asparagus and roasted red peppers; and portobella-and-tofu skewers grilled and served over beluga lentil salad. We also ordered a special of the evening - steelhead trout with crab-lemon cream.

The steelhead - the ocean-going cousin of rainbow trout - was red, like salmon, and oily. Buttery, said my dearest companion, who happily paired the fish with bread and my spaghetti.

The spaghetti needed something. Flavor. Presentation was good; served in a deep black bowl, there was a nice visual contrast between white pasta and green, cut-up bits. Texture was good - doughy and fresh-tasting, as fresh pasta should be. But I like flavors stronger rather than milder and hoped for more.

The tofu-and-mushroom skewers had plenty of flavor. The mushrooms were tender and smoky but not mushy; the tofu melted in the mouth. The beluga lentil tabouli was a hit. The tiny lentils looked like fish roe and provided a tasty foil to the tofu and shiitake slices.

"Why can't all food be this good?" said the youngest Sam, speaking for us all.

Because dinner was filling but not heavy, we had room for dessert. Options were limited; we selected one to share - a blueberry cobbler. We received a small warm serving of plump berries under a light layer of breading and topped with fresh whipped cream - delicious but not too sweet.

We were hugely happy with the dinner. There were a few differences of taste - the empanada breading was thicker than I like, the crab-lemon cream did not appeal to my companion, and she also felt the tofu was "too soy sauce-y."

Also, the post-dinner coffee came lukewarm, but that was quickly corrected by our waitress.

On the whole, a great meal.

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