Big-time taste with small-town charm

Restaurant CriticNovember 5, 2004 

On a recent Saturday night at Main Steak Bistro & Wine Shop, the tostones rellenos that kicked off our meal took 45 minutes to arrive. When we got them, they were dry and chewy. But I can practically guarantee the same thing won't happen to you.

First, tostones aren't even on the menu. They were the first course of a special Cuban Night theme dinner that took place that evening. What's more, the tardy tostones were the only lapse in service that otherwise proved a winning balance of efficiency and small-town friendliness over the course of three visits.

Then why, you may ask, do I start off by telling you about such an atypical experience? Because, in a roundabout way, it's key to understanding what makes this charming little bistro worth a drive to Clayton.

For starters, the slow arrival of our appetizer that night was at least partly the result of the restaurant's amiable small-town attitude. Turns out that Leslie Barranco, the gracious hostess who owns Main Steak Bistro with her husband, Frank, just couldn't say no to a large party of regular customers who asked on short notice to join the Cuban Night festivities as part of a birthday celebration. This clearly overwhelmed the kitchen.

But the kitchen made a fine recovery after that initial onslaught, turning out three more courses (black bean soup, mojo-marinated pork loin and flan) in timely succession. The quality of these courses was much improved over the initial one, testament to the talent -- not to mention grace under pressure -- of chef Monica Moore.

To tell you the truth, nobody seemed to notice the appetizer snafu, anyway. Throughout the evening, a convivial spirit pervaded the dining room, the sort of familiar conviviality typical of small towns where most of the customers know one another and the owner by name.

Main Steak Bistro fosters this spirit with a steady stream of special events, including monthly wine tastings, brunch offered the second Sunday of each month and every-other-month theme dinners such as Cuban Night (other recent dinners have featured the cuisines of France and the Caribbean).

Every Tuesday night is Pasta Night, where $7.95 buys you a big bowl of pasta tossed with the sauce and three freshly cooked veggies of your choice. Even if you tack on three or four bucks to add, say, shrimp or prosciutto or portobellos to your pasta, plus another three for a mesclun salad with house-made dressing (try the apple vinaigrette), it's still a bargain in a restaurant where entrees average $20.

By no means, however, do you have to catch one of Main Steak Bistro's special events to appreciate its allure. The dining room and bar, with their Victorian bronze and frosted glass chandeliers and their vintage black-and-white photos of historic Clayton on walls the color of butterscotch pudding, are warmly inviting every night. And the tables are always draped with crisp white linens and set with fresh flowers.

Nor will you have any trouble finding the makings of a thoroughly enjoyable meal on the regular menu. Grilled brie, served with fresh seasonal fruit and crostini and drizzled with a syrupy (but not too sweet) raspberry balsamic reduction, gets the meal off to a nice old-fashioned start. So do jumbo shrimp capped with a savory crabmeat stuffing, the pairing subtly framed in a tarragon beurre blanc.

Steaks, as you may have guessed from the restaurant's name, are a star attraction. Black peppercorn-crusted beef filet au poivre, available in 6-ounce and 12-ounce cuts, has earned a cultlike following. I sampled a classic variation on the theme, filet mignon wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon. While the filet was cooked precisely medium-rare as ordered and the accompanying bordelaise and risotto were on the money, the steak wasn't as tender as it should have been. On the other hand, I have no complaints whatsoever about a grilled 16-ounce rib-eye.

Other entree options include grilled Atlantic salmon, rack of lamb and a distinctive eggplant Parmesan with roasted red peppers. Grilled lobster tail and pesto-marinated chicken breast are recent additions to the list.

Your server is likely to recommend the pan-roasted chicken breast, a twist on the cordon bleu theme featuring a stuffing of smoked ham, brie and portobellos. Heed the recommendation.

The dessert selection varies nightly but is apt to include the likes of carrot cake, chocolate peanut butter mousse and creme brulee. All are made in house, and they're consistently good enough that you can follow your whim. Personally, I favor the rich, dark, not-too-sweet chocolate bread pudding and a recent seasonal offering of pumpkin flan.

When it comes to the "Wine Shop" part of the establishment's name, the few bottles in the little wine rack in the foyer are only the tip of the iceberg. The bulk of the offering -- more than six dozen well-chosen labels, nearly half of them available by the glass -- is contained in the wine list. Since the bottles are also offered for retail sale, presumably the list is what you might call a virtual wine shop.

The next theme dinner at Main Steak Bistro & Wine Shop is a Holiday Wine Dinner scheduled for Nov. 16. The four-course affair, with a wine pairing for each course, is sure to be popular. But Leslie Barranco will try to squeeze you in if she can.

Greg Cox can be reached at ggcox@bellsouth.net.

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