315 Restaurant and Wine Bar, still Bistro 315 on your caller ID, has a new executive chef, Ryan Mann. Last year’s renovation added new dining areas and created a more enticing wine bar away from that busy hallway outside the kitchen. The old 315 tipped its toque mostly toward Provence, and its Web site still advertises “the finest in French cuisine since 1995.” The menu, however, is now rife with risotto, polenta, pancetta, porcini, and Parmesan, and there’s even a beef carpaccio. The Italian influence probably intensified with the brief passage last year of chef Michael Easton, who moved on to re-engineer owner Louis Moskow’s other recently renovated venture, the Railyard Restaurant & Saloon, recast as La Stazione — but that’s another story. If the bistro hasn’t been transformed into a trattoria, its culinary center has moved out of Provence. Call it an uncharted island where American and Mediterranean influences (including North African) mingle with ingredients from Italy in a mostly French-controlled autonomous region. Bistro classics like steak frites, mussels and fries, and the delicious crème brûlée remain on the menu.
The special prix fixe menu is now offered everyday until closing at a rock-bottom price to match our rock-bottom economy: $18 for three courses. Choices are limited but change weekly. For $35 you can enjoy three courses chosen freely from the printed menu — perhaps the best deal of all. In practice, though, the nightly specials — with prices clearly indicated — sing a siren song from the bistro blackboard. Take the foie gras; I mean, order it. It boasted a perfectly seared crust and rare center, highlighted by a ruby grapefruit
gastrique. (The gastrique is a reduced sauce aigre-doux — or sour-sweet sauce made with caramelized sugar and vinegar or citrus juice.) A glass of caramel and grapefruit Sauternes offered by the server confirmed the beauty of the classic pairing of foie gras and Sauternes. Similarly, the blackboard’s pan-fried oysters served with sauce ravigote (cold sauce studded with pickle and flavored with tarragon) slipped down so well with a 2007 William Fèvre Chablis that I never wanted to leave the starter block. An elk tenderloin special, tender and medium rare as ordered, also seduced me, the sauce snappy with North African harissa and served with risotto. The risotto is made with farro, a fashionable ancient grain with a nuttier, grainier texture than rice.
The regular menu boasts handmade cavatelli, an Italian pasta with origins in southern Italy. On a cold winter night, I hungered for bright flavors, but the stout, chewy pasta felt too heavy. Though it was an interesting dish, with complex layers from a tomato broth, fresh spinach, chopped picholine olives, and shaved Parmesan, somehow a dark funkiness reigned where I expected sunshine. Prawn tempura had a light crunch and high lusciousness. The perfectly cooked duck breast packed flavor and melting tenderness under crisp skin. The boost of a clove-spiced sauce, the crunch of pistachios, and sweet roasted apples make this a dish that might become my standard. A 2005 Faiveley Givry needed more time — perhaps years — to balance its marked acidity, showing only a faint promise of leather and fruit near the end of our meal.
Determined one night to try the $18 prix fixe (get thee behind me, blackboard!), I found it a simple, well-cooked meal without fireworks. It started with a good salad topped with an unfortunate sweet-potato croquette: a finger of fried heaviness. (Just my luck — for Mardi Gras, the oysters started the $18 prix
fixe, and though they were also fried, they added the lightness of shellfish for contrast.) A subtly addictive hint of chile in the pleasantly salty sauce and quinoa accompaniment lifted the juicy pork tenderloin from banality. Ample consolation for the starter arrived with the dark chocolate mousse that came only on the
prix fixe. No surprise, because desserts are a specialty at the bistro: chocolate flourless cake with pistachio ice cream and Grand Marnier sauce, chocolate pot de crème, and crème brûlée are all deeply, deliciously satisfying both in texture and taste. Even if the menu now speaks some Italian, French traditions like the blackboard specials, the prix fixe menus, and a certain savoir-faire in food and service are alive at 315. ◀