Lavish or budget, Bloomsbury delivers

CorrespondentMarch 26, 2010 

  • 509 W. Whitaker Mill Road, Raleigh


    Cuisine: contemporary

    Rating: 1/2

    Prices: $$-$$$

    Atmosphere: comfortable neighborhood bistro

    Noise level: low to moderate

    Service: polished but not stuffy

    Recommended: feel free to follow your whim

    Open: Dinner Monday-Saturday.

    Reservations: recommended

    Other: full bar (excellent wine list); accommodates children; solid vegetarian selection

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

On a recent menu at Bloomsbury Bistro, one of the entree options was (gourmets, prepare to gasp in horror) tilapia.

A freshwater fish known for its low cost, mild flavor and frequent appearance on the menus of ethnic restaurants, tilapia is hardly fashionable, and certainly not what you'd expect to see on the menu of a fine-dining establishment.

As it happens, though, tilapia was one of the options on a three-course dinner for two that owner/chef John Toler sometimes offers for a bargain $50.

More to the point, Toler's tilapia presentation - a cashew-crusted fillet served over basmati rice and an Indian-inspired curry of sweet bay scallops, sugar snaps and navel orange segments - was more impressive than some trendier (and pricier) fish offerings I've had elsewhere. Food fashions come and go, after and it doesn't hurt to be reminded that lobster was once considered poor man's food.

Other recent entree options on the bargain menu (there are usually five) have included pork "osso buco" with Austrian-style bacon dumplings; a ragout of Angus beef and exotic mushrooms over a sauté of Italian parsley spaetzle and savoy cabbage; and a variation on the Oscar theme featuring asparagus and jumbo lump blue crab atop a succulent skillet-roasted half chicken.

These come, mind you, after your appetite has been whetted by starters such as creamy crab and sweet corn bisque garnished with Old Bay croutons and a splash of oloroso sherry; crisp-skinned frog legs over a puree of artichokes bejeweled with green Cerignola olives; and an unctuous gratin of baby spinach and Brussels sprouts topped with a ragout of wild mushrooms and duck confit. Paired with a selection from the bistro's thoughtfully chosen (and aggressively priced) wine list, and topped off by a generous dessert sampler, this is hardly a meal that will leave you feeling deprived.

More bang for your buck

Toler introduced the prix fixe deal in response to the recession, but the chef earned a reputation for delivering lots of bang for the buck long before the hard times hit.

Entree prices on the regular menu typically hover in the $20-$25 range and seldom stray above $30. Not bad for a restaurant that consistently delivers excellent food and polished service in a comfortable setting.

If you're not persuaded by the tilapia, you might opt instead for grilled North Carolina yellowfin tuna over a pancetta-punctuated medley of spaghetti squash, haricots verts and Cabernet beurre rouge.

Still not lavish enough? The 9-ounce filet is as expertly cooked as you'll find in a good steakhouse and comes with garlicky sautéed broccoli, whipped potatoes and a creamy, green peppercorn Cognac sauce.

Feeling adventurous? Set sail for the macadamia-encrusted Hawaiian style lobster risotto cake with a soy and passion fruit vinaigrette. Then let Toler whisk you away to the Mediterranean for Cretan stifado, the chef's deconstructed take on a classic Greek stew featuring slow-cooked rabbit and fennel sausage over orzo and wilted baby spinach.

Vegetarian? The pistachio-spangled organic field green salad is fine for starters, but if you're craving something more substantial, get the Italian fontina cheese fried in polenta, served over baby arugula and drizzled with 25-year-old balsamic vinegar. Just ask the waiter to hold the crispy prosciutto garnish. Better yet, give it to your meat-eating dining companion. It will distract him from the drunken goat cheese-stuffed silver dollar mushrooms you've got your eye on for your entree.

Kitchen miscues are infrequent and usually minor, a fact that will come as no surprise to the many loyal fans Toler has earned over the years. Bloomsbury Bistro celebrates its 15th anniversary this month and continues to thrive in its inconspicuous spot at the edge of the Hayes Barton neighborhood while flashier restaurants come and go in trendier locations.

The dining room and bar have had a couple of makeovers and expansions over the years, though the space still retains a certain cozy charm.

And if Toler's globally inspired menu doesn't seem as cutting edge as it did when he opened the restaurant, it still holds a surprise or two when he changes it every six weeks or so. And like the reliable friend that Bloomsbury Bistro has come to be over the years, it rarely disappoints. or

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