Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
No, it’s really a restaurant. Not, as you’ll think upon approach, a florist’s shop. Or a gardening center. There aren’t many more attractive restaurant entrances. Even in late winter, barrel-sized pots sprout a dramatic botanical array: towering sprays of sere grasses and tangles of berry-studded vines. With warmer weather, expect the doorway garden at Bistro 1130 to blossom again as it did when the place opened last fall. Inside, mirrors, blown-glass chandeliers, gold filigree, and low-key lighting create a glow of formality. Linen-dressed tables and padded, Art Deco chairs contribute to the sophisticated atmosphere. A postage-stamp bar can be crowded; otherwise, it’s a pleasant distraction while waiting.
This “bistro” isn’t one. It’s more properly a restaurant, as reflected in the multicourse menu. Offerings are limited: half a dozen hors d’oeuvres, a couple of salads and soups, four viands, and an equal number of seafood dishes. Don’t be fooled. You’ll still spend approximately the same amount of time deliberating dinner here as you did picking out your child’s name.
The clatter of empty shells will be all that remains of the mussel appetizer, steamy and plump in a chardonnay–garlic cream sauce. A fist of sautéed sweetbreads is particularly attractive, with a winey port reduction splattered over it, accompanied by a spray of peppery greens. Tongs are a welcome tool for the escargot, but a snail fork would have been a better weapon in the battle of extracting the delicious, garlicky mollusk meat. The success of a vol-au-vent depends entirely on the freshness of that airy, crunchy pastry that loses its texture within hours. Fortunately, the bistro has a first-rate nioleur, or pastry chef, in the kitchen, and the results show: a puffy, golden cloud of butter-rich, crackle-thin pastry holds shrimp, crabby bits, and scallops with a light béchamel sauce.
It’s hard not to be impressed with the Crottin de Chavignol appearing on a salad of lamb’s tongue greens, kalamata olives, and toasted walnuts. This soft, silky goat cheese is nutty and understated, unquestionably the most justly famous fromage of France’s Loire Valley. The bistro’s cheese choice here makes for a splendid salade course. The other salad matches arugula with poached pears and a big, lusty Stilton; a spritely cranberry vinaigrette fatigues the arugula nicely.
White truffle cream laces through a fabulously luxuriant lobster bisque. Tempting, but on a cold day, go for 1130’s French onion soup. In this magazine’s food blog, Relish, we recently explained the folksy French custom of chabrot. We were happy to see it at 1130, a St. Louis first: a ruby-filled aperitif glass comes to the table along with the onion soup. (And yes, this is the only time an aperitif glass belongs on the table.) The wine’s added to the last of the soup, a way of finishing things off. Usually, the wine’s a vin ordinaire, but we didn’t turn down the Côtes du Rhône. Stabbing through the thick crust of Gruyère lets loose the beefy perfume of the glossy, savory broth, salty and sweet with caramelized onions. The wine adds a tangy touch to a decidedly superior version of this classic soup.
The herby, lemony, basil-smacked taste of southern France predominates in many of the dishes here. Aromas of basil, thyme, and savory bloom in a trio of lamb chops, roasted to pink perfection, alternately dressed with crumbles of pungent goat cheese, a crust of Boursin, and just those herbes de Provence. A pancake of pommes de terre Dauphinois comes with the lamb, along with a spicy ratatouille.
Veal loin. Lobster and leek confit. An emulsion sauce of white truffles. Do you have any problems with where this might be leading? We didn’t think so. The loin is seared so the surface gets a toasty crust. Inside, the meat is tender as a Hallmark card. The “confit” appears to be a take on Thomas Keller’s now-famous butter-poached lobster. It’s ruinously rich, taking the lobster a step further down a road to seafood sublimity.
Pairing monkfish with foie gras is a trifle ironic, since the liver of the world’s ugliest fish is often called a “seafood foie gras.” Here, nubbins of real foie gras share the plate with a generous slab of the fish. Chips of bacon add a tinge of smokiness to the presentation, along with braised cabbage and tender carrots. A basil-smacked beurre blanc jump-starts a sautéed red snapper. Earthy, woody wild mushrooms and asparagus slivers enliven a risotto that, folded into the glossy, al dente rice, would have been way above average even without them.
A hand grenade of lemon explodes in a tart, one of two desserts offered. The puckering tang of the fruit is electric, the custardy tart creamy. The sole reason not to dine alone here is so you can have a companion order the other dessert, a crème brûlée perfumed with lavender.
Floor-to-ceiling wine racks display an entirely satisfactory inventory. An ’05 Nuits-Saint-Georges pinot noir is school-age now; the problem with these legendary pinot noirs is that they open more slowly than a double-taped UPS package. This one’s mature enough to go with that lamb. Côtes du Rhônes always seem to play too roughly with a meat like veal. You’ll be pleasantly surprised, though, at how well a Crozes Hermitage does the job. The risotto? Easy. The Pouilly-Fuissé.
Incongruously self-described as the “sexiest French restaurant in town,” Bistro 1130 will be better known as “that great French place next to the doggie-treats bakery.” Moderately upscale, relatively pricey by St. Louis standards, and bringing the flavors of southern France to West County, it’s well worth a visit. The bakery? You’ll have to ask Fluffy.
The Bottom Line: Stylish French dining.
SLM Relish: Not unlike the mind of Angelina Jolie, the recipe for crème brulee seems almost laughably simple. Heavy cream, egg yolks, and sugar. So how come so many of them come from the oven gooey messes or separated more horribly than Tiger and Elin? Most often, it’s because the cook doesn’t use the bain-marie as it should be. At 174o, egg yolks begin to separate. A custard—which is basically what crème brulee is—starts to work its eggy magic at 145 degrees. A pan of steamy water is the perfect bath for the job. Unfortunately, too many cooks skimp on the water. It should be right at the level of the custard in its cup. That, along with a low and slow cooking temperature, goes a long way in making crème brulee the indulgent joy it should be.
A nioleur is, technically, an archaic French term for a pastry chef. But it can also be a slur for that same chef. It started in the late Middle Ages, when nieules, ribbons of unleavened dough, were cooked along with ashes from burnt grape vines that produced potash, which gave a smoky taste that doesn’t sound too appetizing but apparently hit the spot for the Albigensian crowd. Nieules eventually became the equivalent of funnel cakes, popular at fairs, made by what were essentially 16th century carnies, who were also Protestants. Along came the Edict of Nantes in 1598 and we all know what happened then. The party was pretty much over for French Protestants, who took their nieules and hotfooted it to Germany. Where, after a time, rock salt replaced the potash and nieules evolved into pretzels.
Back in France, the term nioleur hung on, where it was used to describe pastry cooks but where, given the humble origins of their specialty, it could also be used as a dismissive put-down. The modern title, of course, is patissier. Still, it’s fun to use the old word wherever you can. So when you’re at a French restaurant, enjoying your éclair, macaron, or petit four, you can say to the waiter, “Please give my compliments to the nioleur—but I hope he won’t take that in a bad way.” And the waiter will have not the slightest clue what the hell you’re talking about.
Crottin de Chauvignol—1130 Bistro misspells it on the menu but noblesse oblige stays us from making too much of that in the case of the French who really have so little to be haughty about that one is reluctant to dress them down for such errors—is really one of the great cheeses of the world. It’s made from goat’s milk and develops a gradual maturity, going from a light, nutty creaminess to a more pronounced, faintly salty pungency. Simultaneously, the natural rind progresses from ivory to a deep, dark black that, given the small rounds in which the cheese is formed, resembles a crottin—horse dropping.