The story of Bistro 64 began long before the restaurant opened in May 2006. In fact, to borrow a term from thoroughbred racing, Bistro 64 is best described as a promising colt with an excellent pedigree. Whether it lives up to that pedigree remains to be seen.
Bistro 64 was sired, you might say, by John Toler, who had already established a stellar track record as chef/proprietor of Bloomsbury Bistro when he opened a second restaurant named The Cosmopolitan in Cary. Among the new restaurant's fans were Will and Emily Massey, who liked the place so much that they bought it. They changed the name to Bistro 64, but otherwise kept the restaurant pretty much the way it was -- at least initially.
On the other side of Bistro 64's culinary family tree is chef Alan Batson, who took over the kitchen after Toler protege Randy Wilder left in November. Batson, who had shown flashes of brilliance as the owner/chef of the short-lived Southern Star, soon began putting his own imprint on the menu. The chef's distinctive style, which he honed in restaurants from France to Brazil to Cape Cod, is evident throughout his seasonally evolving offerings.
On the current menu, an appetizer presentation of country fried chicken livers with Madeira sauce and candied Vidalia onions juggles multiple flavors -- not to mention techniques with roots in both hemispheres -- without dropping a ball. Batson's signature salad, a kaleidoscope of baby greens, sun-dried berries, candied pecans and goat cheese in a passion fruit vinaigrette, is as satisfying as I recall enjoying two years ago at Southern Star. And a faithfully rendered Caesar proves that the chef is equally adept when he chooses to rein in his creativity.
Sometimes, however, Batson's creative urges do get away from him. This happens most often with entree presentations, where he is wont to load the plate with so many diverse -- and not always harmonious -- components that he seems to be trying to write his new menu over the one he inherited, rather than erasing and starting fresh. In a dish featuring wood-roasted rack of lamb, for instance, lemon-mint chimichurri and balsamic syrup compete for attention when either one alone would have done nicely. Add broccoli florets and mashed potatoes, then garnish with not one but two salsas, plus a couple of ribbons of fried plantain and a parsley sprig, and you're deep in overkill territory.
New York strip steak suffers from a similarly busy plate presentation, though the steak itself is properly cooked and beautifully counterpointed by a Madeira sauce and crisp Vidalia onion rings. Still more successful is cedar plank-roasted tilapia with chive and lump blue crab butter, whose plate presentation is downright minimalist in comparison.
Fans of Southern Star's early bird special will be happy to know that Batson has revived the practice at Bistro 64, where a three-course prix fixe meal is offered Monday through Thursday evenings from 5 to 6 p.m. for $20. Portions are smaller than on the regular menu, but even so the deal is a steal. What's more, streamlined plate presentations make for a gratifyingly uncomplicated dining experience. Highlights of a recent prix fixe offering included crab and corn chowder with a surprisingly generous dose of lump crabmeat; cedar plank-roasted catfish with lemon caper butter (plank-roasting is a Batson hallmark); penne with smoked salmon and prosciutto in a dill cream sauce; and a Southern rum cake liberally laced with dark rum.
The wine list is more than respectable, with a global selection of more than 120 wines (nearly two dozen by the glass). And if your taste runs to martinis, you'll choose from one of the longest lists around.
The wait staff are uniformly friendly (except for the hostess who curtly asked for my phone number when I checked in for a reservation), but variable in terms of training and experience. Service is apt to improve, however, under the able guidance of new general manager Jeff Golliday. And once the wait staff and kitchen hit their stride, Bistro 64 is one thoroughbred I wouldn't bet against.
Greg Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.