Back where it belongs, classic French cuisine returns to Stamford
By Elizabeth Keyser
Vive la France, we cried, when we heard that a new little French café would open on the intersection of Bedford and Spring, one of the best corners in downtown, and arguably where Stamford’s vibrant outdoor dining scene began years ago. But would it live up to our memories of its predecessor? After a recent visit, our answer is a resounding bien sûr! Sure, Stamford diners shed tears when Chez Jean-Pierre closed. But the new Barrique Bistro & Wine Bar brings a fresh air of Provence to the bustling corner.
The dining room has been transformed into an airy space with a soothing natural palette, including notes of gray (the neutral of the moment), and exposed, whitewashed brick. Folding doors open out to the corner, continuing the location’s indoor-outdoor tradition with high-top sidewalk tables, the better to see-and-be-seen. Inside, the dark wood tables are bare. And the bar in the rear with its new urban chic appeal, though quiet during the summer, will undoubtedly attract crowds as soon as temperatures begin to cool. (You can catch some live jazz there Wednesdays at 8 p.m.)
On a recent Friday evening, Barrique drew a crowd of all ages—young professionals in business attire, casual double-dating couples in their sixties, and an underdressed shorts-and-flip-flops-wearing young man whose date was in a dress (dude, put on a pair of pants). A mother, father and their two tween girls took a table and smiled at one another, happy to be out together (nice to see none used a handheld device during the entire meal). At the table in the back corner, a gentleman seemed to shield his female dining companion from view as he leaned in. An assignation? We couldn’t help wondering.
Executive Chef Louis Barresi has created a French-accented menu, leaning toward Mediterranean, with a touch of Asian; consider the plats du jour that evening, which included scallops crudo with citrus vinaigrette, Thai chili and mint. From the small plates dinner menu we dove into the Mediterranean Sea for grilled Portuguese octopus, a long tender tentacle grilled and placed over a big, luscious salad of arugula, blood orange, radicchio and whisper-thin rings of fennel. The salad was deftly dressed—each leaf coated in well-made vinaigrette, flavored with shallots, vinegar and orange juice. I’m the ultimate salad dressing snob, and this was one of the best-dressed most wonderful salads I’ve had in a long time. Indeed, salads are well represented, with nine on the menu, ranging from Niçoise to iceberg wedge. We chose the Belgian endive. The bitter albino lettuce was sliced into ribbons and tossed in slightly sweet balsamic vinaigrette, an excellent flavor pairing. Fresh pear added healthy sweetness, toasted pine nuts gave the salad crunch. Little golf balls of deep-fried goat cheese croquettes, crisp and rich, made a meal of it.
We asked to split a bowl of bouillabaisse, and were served two deep bowls of luscious, light broth tasting of the sea, scented with orange zest and saffron. The broth was so good, it vied with the seafood, a hearty catch of blue-black mussels, thumbnail-shaped cockles, chunks of sea bass, pink shrimp, and white rounds and dusky pink tentacles of calamari, all of it tender. I craved this soup the next day.
For main courses, we went with the classics. Barrique Steak Frites was a thick, good-sized strip steak served off the bone. It was cooked exactly as ordered—rare—and it was tender beneath the caramelized sear from the hot pan. The steak was napped with peppercorn sauce, rich and buttery with truffle flavor that added just enough umami without being cloying. The frites looked pale, but encrusted with sea-salt and flecked with herbs, they were crispy and tasted great.
The roasted organic chicken was plump, moist and well-seasoned. Beneath the breast and wing sat the thigh, which I was very happy to see. It all rested on wilted baby arugula and cherry tomatoes in balsamic dressing. The adorable fingerling potatoes were slightly hard that night—one tiny flaw in an evening of technically spot-on cooking.
Then there was the service. The night we were there, Barrique was still new, and a young, inexperienced staff—hostesses and servers—made an odd contrast to the great food coming out of the kitchen. The pros were the bussers, watching the tables, removing our used silverware after each course and wiping the table between courses. Promote this man and woman!
Barrique means barrel, and wine is a strong focus here, with forty-six offerings by the glass and 135 by the bottle, mainly from France and Italy, but ranging from all over the world, even Lebanon. Here’s a tip: ask for Danny, the sommelier. For seven years, he was the sommelier at A Voce, a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City. However, on my evening at Barrique, my cheerful yet unsophisticated waiter recommended a carafe of Jean Luc Colombo, Provence 2012. A freestanding wine bucket arrived, a carafe (recently washed, drips of water on its sides and a little pooling in the bottom) was produced, and a young man appeared with a big bottle of the rosé, which he proceeded to transfer into the carafe, dribbling wine on the floor as he poured. Now that I’ve talked to Danny, I know he would have suggested a crisp sauvignon blanc with the octopus; an off-dry Riesling with the bouillabaisse; and a cabernet sauvignon, like Falchini Campora from Tuscany, with the strip steak. Next time.
And there will be a next time; there is so much on the menu I’m curious to try. There are nine sandwiches, perfect if the occasion calls for lighter fare. The Parisienne has ham, Gruyère, butter and cornichons. Pan Bagnat, that salad on a roll, is made with seared tuna. And of course, there’s a steak sandwich and bacon-cheddar burger. I can already see the business crowd packing la maison.
Plus I must have another taste of the tiramisu. Chef Barresi’s mother makes it and it’s topped with shaved chocolate. Flan, apple tart and chocolate cake are also offered, but if your end-of-meal predilections lean toward the savory, save a few sips of wine to go with samplings from the Charcuterie & Fromage menu. You will no doubt raise your glass and toast to making new memories at this cozy bistro. A votre santé!