After a great start eight or nine years ago, this central South Pas place became more and more of a disappointment over time, with food that was less than it used to be and service off as well. The last time Mrs. O and I were in the tightly walled-in front room, a table occupied by women conversing in screams caused mine to declare she'd never return.
The place has changed hands since, so when Mrs. O made plans to dine with some former classmates last night I thought I'd see what if any improvements had been made there. The first one was obvious inside the door: the bar is now to the left, the main dining room to the right, and the walls have been opened up to light, air, and reduced echo effects. The bluntly pleasant young French hostess/server was a nice change, too, showing me to a comfortable corner table with a good view of everything. The printed menu shows simpler dishes and slightly higher prices than the online one, but the ones I'd already decided on, the escargot and a steak-frites, were still within reason.
Water showed up immediately – eau de tap in a French bottle, but that's what I'd asked for – and, after I'd ordered my escargot and a glass of Sancerre, so did a basket of very good-looking crusty bread, with a small ramekin of tapenade. It was a nice enough tapenade but I prefer butter, and I was brought some right away. The Sancerre arrived and met expectations, and perhaps ten minutes later so did the escargot, sizzling violently in their little pockets and smelling divine, if you like garlic. The snails were a bit too hot at that point, but another shipment of bread gave me something to explore their buttery garlicky juices with, and I began to feel very, very happy. The plump little molluscs themselves just made it even better, bread and snail making great bites together. I've mentioned before how the staff at another, fancier "Bistro" whisked away my escargot plate just as I was reaching for the bread; in this case, the server not only asked if I was done well after I'd leaned back in a state of bliss, he asked again to make sure! Class shows.
There are two steak-with-fries options on the menu, a NY strip and a filet mignon, the latter for a dollar less, but smaller and with a small green salad garnish. I normally don't go for filet, but was encouraged by the fine flavors so far to try it, and a glass of a French pinot noir. My only regret at the end was that I'd asked for medium-rare; the meat was perfect when it arrived, but had cooked a bit too much more by the last few bites. It was not however the flabby, near-flavorless filet I'd had too many of: it had a good bite and fine flavor, and the wine reduction was perfectly seasoned and in no way overpowering. The little mound of sprouts and wild greens was very lightly dressed, very fresh and very refreshing. As for the wine, it was pleasant but unexceptional; I think our native pinots are spoiling us.
State of bliss not only maintained but increased, the arrival of the tab just made everything even better. No, it was not cheap: $13 for the escargot and $13.50 for the Sancerre, $28 for the filet and $11 for the pinot noir. I figured the water would be free, but was very much surprised to see that the mountain of fine bread I'd had so much fun with was on the cuff as well. With tax and tip it was just under $85, a good bit more than my usual meal tab but worth every nickel. Noting that there were several regular menu items and one special that a vegetarian could enjoy, I'm going to save up my spare change and take Mrs. O there sometime. Especially now that the noise level is but a murmur …
I suppose I should add:
Bistro de la Gare
921 Meridian Ave.
South Pasadena 91030