By David Minsky
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But we've saved room for Pastry Chef Juan Velasquez's desserts. I'd had a plate of his cookies the day before that had left me almost breathless. With the tasting menu, we're served a trio of mouthwatering sweets: a pale green pistachio pie, a scoop of vanilla and pistachio ice cream, and a perfect black hole of a flourless chocolate cake. With a complimentary glass of house-made limoncello cream, refulgent as a sunset, I don't believe you could dream a more satisfying ending to any meal.
Our success at Paradiso had screwed up our courage to explore further. Another tasting menu came to mind, considerably less expensive at $25 per head, served at Le Bistro in Lighthouse Point and preceded by its fine reputation. Le Bistro's chef, Andy Trousdale, was trained in Michelin three-star restaurants in France and Britain. He now teaches culinary arts at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and runs cooking classes out of this petite space; his tasting menu is self-billed as "a nightly culinary adventure." Trousdale's wife, Elin, takes care of the front of the house; she's probably responsible for the idiosyncratic arrangement of oil paintings, copper pots, colored bottles, antique furniture, and soft lighting that makes the most of a couple of bland rooms.
The difference between Paradiso and Le Bistro is rather marked -- but that's a bit like comparing la mela to l'orange. The Trousdales aimed to create an intimate, homey setting with a French twist at this 4-year-old restaurant, and they have done their best. Our friendly waiter was enthusiastic if not particularly precise; he used the word awesome a dozen times to describe the menu, rhapsodizing at length about the food.
Wethinks the laddie may protest too much. He may have raised the bar higher than the kitchen could vault. Two of us ordered the five-course tasting menu (there's a two-person minimum). The rest of our party chose from the full menu. We passed around a spicy bean tapenade with toasted rounds of French bread while we waited.
The tasting menu at Le Bistro opens with an espresso cup of tomato soup decorated with a dollop of pesto. The soup wasn't bad, but it had no real kick: The sweetness of the tomato wasn't cut with enough acid to awaken much appetite. While we polished these off, our friends picked at their salmon ceviche appetizer ($9). In its presentation, the ceviche had unfortunate associations. Minced and served as a round terrine, the salmon looked precisely as if a tin of cat food had been upended on a plate and decorated with herbs and capers. And it was a little heavy on those capers, infusing the terrine with a pickled, bottled flavor.
Second course: "smoked salmon." Members of our party who were ranging freely à la carte had a "flowering artichoke" appetizer ($8), pale leaves with balsamic and goat-cheese dipping sauce, good but not stellar, and a spinach salad with blue cheese and honey-roasted pecans ($7) that came inexplicably dressed with mayonnaise -- and not the homemade kind. Our smoked salmon wasn't worth the trouble it took to plate it: just a piece of slightly fishy lox with a slice of bread and raw onions. Why anyone would want a "taste" of this stuff -- which barely qualifies as an "adventure," even at 10 a.m. on a Sunday -- is a mystery. Even then, with a dab of cream cheese and a bagel, you'd want it considerably fresher. Those of us on the tasting tour were already starting to feel our spirits sag. But a fresh green salad, course number three, was a welcome palate cleanser.
After this series of minor disappointments, our entrées came as a big relief. Course four, beef stroganoff, was an unqualified success. Silky chunks of beef in a viscous, wine-dark stew were sculpturally arranged with a bit of mashed potato, crimson strands of red pepper, and tiny French string beans. It looked beautiful and tasted divine. Success at last! It was painfully obvious that the bulk of this five-course tasting menu's energy had gone into a single course. Our friends had excellent luck too with the beef tenderloin au poivre ($27), cooked medium rare, a beautiful piece of meat matched with a spicy black pepper and cream pan sauce.
Still, the neovegetarian in our midst found her gambas tostones ($8), an appetizer served as a main course, bafflingly unsuccessful. A great idea had made a seriously wrong turn: Plantain baskets filled with garlic shrimp and a mango and corn pico de gallo sounded intriguing, but the baskets, meant to be edible, needed a pick ax to split, and chewing them was out of the question.
A flaky apple tart -- fine but undistinguished -- and a dark chocolate mousse served in a parfait glass (both $6) sweetened up our tempers during dessert. The final adventure on our tasting menu, thick slices of bread pudding with peaches and raisins and dusted with cinnamon, arrived only after we prodded our waiter's lapsed memory. We paired these with a couple of glasses of fresh and flowery Muscat, expensive at $10 a glass but delicious, and cups of black espresso.