It's a recent Monday night on Clematis Street, and the only restaurants doing much business after 9 are Cabana, Pizza Girls, and Pistache French Bistro. Not too long ago, West Palm downtowners liked to kvetch that the devil's triangle around the library, at the eastern end of Clematis, had a mysterious power to make good restaurants disappear: Half-a-dozen major ventures had failed there. Caribbean, American, Asian, Latin — however homey or exotic, no cuisine could survive the evil magic. Folk wisdom said that customers were too clueless or lazy to venture east of Narcissus Avenue, though that never explained why Cabana and Pizza Girls remained stubbornly successful. Tonight, Thierry Beaud's Pistache, open just three days, is two-thirds full and testing its still very green staff. Even Stephen Asprinio is curious: the dapper restaurateur has brushed the crumbs from his fawn-colored suit, closed his hoity Forté a couple of blocks away, and moseyed to Pistache for a cocktail and a look-see.
Pistache isn't the first French restaurant to seek its fortunes in downtown West Palm Beach or the first to serve steak frites and foie gras. Roy Assad's excellent L'Opera, a vast, open-air brasserie, had a pedigreed French chef at the helm and a consulting angel in the form of Keith McNally, the New Yorker behind Balthazar and Pastis who surely knew how to turn brasserie into gold. When L'Opera opened on the 200 block of Clematis in 2005, it had a menu hauntingly similar to the one Pistache is rolling out now: Onion soup, duck à l'orange, burgers with pommes frites, steak tartare, roast chicken, and raw oysters. But great food, a mouth-watering wine list, a cool million in start-up investments, and a stunning space couldn't save L'Opera. Just a block away, though, Maison Carlos is still plugging along — and serving escargots, steak au poivre, and a plate of French cheeses, just like its new neighbor.
All of these operations are or were run by talented people with deep pockets and years of experience — Pistache's Beaud has been involved with Tsunami, Seasons 52, and Café L'Europe, and he has well-seasoned financial backers. Beaud has tweaked the bistro concept just barely. Pistache is less expensive than Maison Carlos or the former L'Opera. You can get a juicy grilled breast of chicken paillard there with a fantastic, lemon-drenched arugula salad that makes you pucker with pleasure, or a homemade chicken pot pie whose sassy crust is puffed up like a rooster's comb, for just $15, and a half carafe of house wine (Georges Duboeuf) for another $15. Those prices make Pistache more of a neighborhood hangout than a special occasion destination, and judging from the glad-handing that transpired on its first and third nights, the neighborhood has already turned out in force. Beaud and friends are rolling out the menu in stages; open for lunch and dinner now, they'll start serving breakfast and brunch after SunFest. It's high time that someone served a decent breakfast downtown. Eventually they'll have supper and late-afternoon menus. For their soft opening, they've got roast chicken ($18), rack of lamb ($38), and moules frites ($17), along with salads, burgers, cheese plates, steaks, a couple of fish dishes, and a retro dish called "airline chicken," which is served with mushroom sauce.
A raw bar with large and small seafood plateaux, daily specials of cassoulet, branzini, and coq au vin, osso bucco, seafood cassolette, duck confit, and bouillabaisse are as yet just gleams in staffers' eyes but give us plenty to anticipate. I'm glad to report that all desserts are already available: tarte Tatin and mousse au chocolat, fruit tart and profiteroles are so delicious you want to rub your face in them.
There's something about Pistache that just feels different from its French-accented predecessors. It's brighter and warmer, and the space is broken up in a pleasant way. The sound reverberating off marble floor tiles, silvered mirrors, and brass fixtures means you have to raise your voice a little to be heard. It's as lively, urban, and relaxed a place as you could hope for. It feels Parisian. You can't peg the clientele — kids in concert T-shirts sat back-to-back with a family whose eight-year-old was negotiating his first "floating island," a super-sweet pillow of meringue in a sea of warm crème anglaise. A guy dining alone was sunk into the red leather banquette with his spread carefully arrayed — bottle of water; cocktail; expensive, decanted wine; plates of goodies. I saw tables of movers and shakers in button-down oxfords and Guccis-no-socks; people speaking French; old dudes in shorts and clogs. There were whiffs of strange perfume. A flashy blond tottled by in spray-on hot pants and five-inch pink stilettos. I looked around and thought, this is a neighborhood I could live in.
A neighborhood you could live in: Such has been the dream of urban planners, mayors, bankers, realtors, and mom-'n'-pop shopkeepers in downtown West Palm Beach for more than a decade, ever since Duany Plater-Zyberk were hired well before the turn of the century to create a plan for a "livable city." We who watch have seen those dreams evaporate like so many August puddles on South Florida streets. And then, all of a sudden, by some practically accidental convergence of forces, the city you'd long ago given up on starts to take shape. Out of the clamorous night walks your unattainable darling. She's smiling right at you. And she smells like soupe à l'oignon.
Even with Pistache's limited menu, I didn't taste a morsel there that I didn't love, and it started with a basket of bread. We learned that the flour for this loaf, baked on site, is flown in from France, which may account for its cloudlike crumb and a crust that crackles disarmingly. Eaten slathered with butter alongside a bowl of soup — onion ($7.75) or du jour (potato leek, $6.75) — it's manna. Melted Gruyère tops the druggy brew of softened onions in their bath of winey broth, and the leek-potato is as trippingly light as the onion is wicked. Escargots in garlic butter ($10) were mouthfuls of bliss. A grilled minute steak with frites ($23.50) was as good an example of that bistro classic as I've ever tasted — the steak faultlessly seasoned, the slender, buttery fries simultaneously crisp and melting. A roasted filet of mahi mahi Niçoise ($19) loved the red and green peppers and sautéed onions it came with. And Pistache's wine list of 50 or so bottles priced from very affordable to insane (the Dom P. is $250), and almost exclusively French, is charming.
"A roasted chicken with French fries is just a roasted chicken with French fries," Beaud reportedly has said. Alors, if only it were true. There are a hundred-and-one ways to fuck up a roasted chicken, and another hundred ways to massacre a fry; put them together and the potential for disaster is incalculable. Modest, modest Monsieur Beaud!
And one supposes that the tarte Tatin ($7) is just oh so easy. Ridiculous, really, you just throw it together, eh?, cut up some apples and put them in a crust. And then you have these silly, silly Americans, who have never tasted anything so delicious in their entire lives, simply raving like maniacs — over what any Frenchman eats every day, giving it not two seconds of thought.
Ah well. If all food this simple could be as perfectly executed, it would be a miracle at least as great as designing a livable city from scratch.