Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Restaurant review: C'est magnifique at Tampa's Bizou Brasserie

Bizou at Le Méridien adds American twists without compromising French flair.

Posted By on Wed, Aug 20, 2014 at 12:51 PM

****
click to enlarge CASUAL CLASSIC: Bizou's marvelous steak frites. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • CASUAL CLASSIC: Bizou's marvelous steak frites.
If you’ve ever wanted to get your sweet little heinie to Paris, but found your wallet a few francs (or $/€) short, you must visit Bizou. I feel transported — by the decor and menu graphics, and especially the “food, glorious food.”

There’s been some buzz about noise in the bright reflective space, and a CL colleague experienced some less-than-snappy service at a pre-theater meal, but my weeknight dinner has my companions more jazzed than they have been in months. And the noise and service for my visit are well within Chez L’Ami Louis 3rd arrondissement standards.

The menu mixes in a few nods to American tastes that you won’t find in France, but Bizou’s food wins my heart. SoHo Hospitality, the company behind my beloved, late Samba Room (BOTB ’12), Ciro’s Speakeasy, Boca and CopperFish, has a new gem that shines ever so bright. It’s my favorite of the bunch. It’s personal, of course, but while I also rated CopperFish 4 stars, I haven’t thought about it since. Bizou has me looking for an excuse to return. It’s only the cacophony and wait-staff quibbles that keep this from my uppermost echelon. And it has craft cocktails to rival Ciro’s; my favorite is Vieux Carre, but they’re all top-notch.

No matter what your culinary background, I urge you to dive in and try the thick slab of perfectly sautéed foie gras floating on fig jam-smeared brioche French toast. I convince a vegetarian, who sometimes opts to cross over, to give up foie gras virginity for the height of gastro-pleasure.

Foie (as Anthony Bourdain casually refers to this most luxurious and rich ingredient) needs to be experienced even if you have doubts. I rarely meet a willing soul who is sorry. Just be forewarned: Foie is like crack, and you may become instantly addicted. I OD’d my last time in France and had to spend a week in withdrawal eating salad.

Also, make the leap for escargot coated in herb-garlic butter. The chef wittily serves these bite-size morels in a large puff pastry topped with chive “antennae” to mimic a giant snail.

The tomato tart is made with utterly addictive goat cheese from Humboldt County in northern California called Purple Haze (Jimi Hendrix fans take note). The cheese’s unexpected marriage of lavender with wild fennel pollen combines with the tart’s oven-dried tomatoes to make a creamy wonder that has my companions fighting over the last bite.

click to enlarge OLD WORLD FACADE: Bizou is located in Le Méridien's repurposed Federal Courthouse. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • OLD WORLD FACADE: Bizou is located in Le Méridien's repurposed Federal Courthouse.

The most classic of French bistro dishes is steak frites. Hanger steak is an amazingly flavorful cut; when cooked a perfect medium rare, sliced thin across the grain, and topped with garlic-parsley butter, it is indeed memorable. The crisp fries and huge mound of lightly dressed frisée salad are spot on. This is the quintessential taste of casual French cooking.

The Scottish salmon is lightly caramelized with some flavorful mini ratatouille, creamy sweet corn polenta and a red pepper sauce for piquant zip. The Colorado rack of lamb is served with two double rib chops, a sweet carrot purée balanced with artichoke tapenade and a hint of anise-flavored French tarragon demi-glace. Both are lovely.

Rosy slices of pan-seared duck breast and a duck confit tart sit on absolutely ethereal celery root purée that brings me up short; its silky smoothness is arresting, and the sour cherry-sherry glaze is a perfect complement to the bird’s natural gaminess. Try this with a glass of Meiomi pinot noir from California; you won’t be disappointed (it’s not French, but it is delicious).

If you find yourself in need of a potty break, just look for the imposing door with a frosted glass panel reading “207: United States Hearing Room.” The Le Méridien folks wisely retain architectural elements to celebrate the building’s history.

There is no dessert menu, but you have the choice of many fine offerings from the pastry case near the entrance, which in this case is short for entrancing. The ever-so-light (and French) macarons come in a wide variety of flavors. We opt for strawberry with a light touch of basil, a subtle salted caramel, and the wonderful lingering toasted coconut.

Two twists based on salted caramel stretch the envelope. An eclair with Heath bar crunch topping is just luscious, but the salted caramel-mango creme brûlée in pastry (rather than a ramekin) is just odd. Skip that and go for the utterly seductive tarte citron with fresh blueberries that rivals my favorite from William Dean. If you’re a fan of sweet-tart lemon curd, this is a winner.

You can valet park at the hotel entrance on Zack Street ($5 with validation), but don’t even consider taking the hotel elevator to the second floor. You must enter up the Florida Avenue stairs of the former courthouse. It’s a perp walk of unusual grandeur, with towering Corinthian columns on a scale worthy of Athens. As you enter the doors and hear the Law & Order “thump-thump,” please know that it’s not the sound of justice, but your heart jumping for joy over the meal that is to come. As Cole Porter wrote in “Can-Can,” “Ooh-la-la-la, c’est magnifique!” 

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