The Standard Bistro & Larder
Swanky, sweet, and striving
by M.B. Lewis
From the September, 2018 issue
While our long-aproned server described the Standard Bistro & Larder's culinary approach as "haute French cuisine with a few exceptions," my eye jumped to a first plate on the single-page menu: "Vietnamese Salmon Cake." The kind of fresh fare now available on the streets of Paris as alternatives to heavy sauces and even baguettes, it reset my expectations for Alex Young's new restaurant, from Cordon Bleu classicism to modern multiculturalism.
So kudos to Young, the award-winning chef who created the Standard in the wake of his long and successful run at Zingerman's Roadhouse. In place of the Roadhouse's American regional specialties, here he's gone full-bore international, with a French filter.
An elegant space sets the tone for ambition and high standards. At first glance, the black-and-white color scheme seems simple, but high-design accents soon come into focus. Site-built Calder-esque lighting fixtures hover over rows of tables. Chartreuse green upholstery covers booths big enough for five (though the Velcro-like fabric makes sliding a challenge). Looking out the big windows, you barely see Lowe's and Culver's signs across Jackson Rd., thanks to landscaping with trees on high berms.
You park in back and enter from a gracious porch. A left turn at the reception desk leads to the clubby bar, where dramatic backlighting turns towering shelves of expensive liquor bottles into an amber-dominant stained-glass vision. A right takes you past a long three-part cold case and its white-garbed attendant. In the first section of the case are surgical-sharp cuts of beef, pork, and lamb, as well as tied roasts and gyro meat. The second section holds prepared foods and salads, and the third has small tarts and desserts. On one visit, my perusal of this namesake "larder" prompted a steady sales pitch from the attendant (including where the animal that produced each house-butchered cut had been raised). I politely explained that we had come to eat dinner, not shop for our next one.
The takeout case is the "Larder" part of
the business. "The Standard" I took to be aspirational--one definition is "exemplar, paradigm, ideal." And that's just what the Standard delivers on some dishes.
Among the first plates, our chilled beet soup couldn't have been better: it arrived in stunning magenta glory, with both its sweet flavor and colors enhanced by a generous dollop of tart creamy white goat cheese nestled in an iridescent-green halo of basil oil. The lucky diner who ordered it offered tastes around the table but was clearly eager to get it back to finish every spoonful.
Her husband was equally happy with his lobster bisque, which had a good amount of fresh pink claw meat atop a tasty and unusually rich-colored soup, thanks to an infusion of veggies and herbs in the mix. Likewise, the French onion soup had the darkest and meatiest beef base I've ever encountered, plus plenty of cheese atop.
Several other starters were good, but at least one criterion short of great. The eye-catching Vietnamese salmon cake, for example, had fresh fish flavor, nice crisping, and attractive large-plate presentation with a sprinkling of peanuts, coconut, and diced lime rind, but I found the white citrus membrane distractingly bitter--zest would have been better. In the savory duck confit crepe, a high Taleggio-to-meat ratio necessitated fork-fishing through the melted cheese filling for shreds of meat. Likewise, the carpaccio was sublimely tender, but its barely postage-stamp-size beef snippets adrift in olive oil were so fork-unfriendly that we had to ask (and wait) for bread to spread it on. "Saffron emmer pappardelle" was all about the pesto--though golden saffron threads were visible in the nicely textured pasta, their delicate flavor was obliterated by the garlicky sauce. Among salads, the lovely medley of root vegetables in the "Jardiniere" was dressed to the "very vinegary" end of the scale.
Fortunately, sublime balance re-turned when we got to "second plate" entrees.
Our super-sauced chicken fricassee, with big artichoke quarters and mushrooms, nailed a comfort-food accolade, with the crisp-edged and generously apportioned porchetta atop rich risotto a close second. The red-peppery-brothed Marseille bouillabaisse was a lavish fish medley, including heads-on shrimp--no surprise in a whole-animal shop--while the intense flavor in the thick smear of yellow rouille spread on toast was oddly suggestive of potato salad. Sea bass Provencal was superb, made even better by preserved lemons that sent citrus jolts through the roasted tomato sauce. The steak frites, with their tender meat and good-sized portion of fries, could placate a picky teen or tween eater, if the folks don't balk at the not-a-kids'-menu price: $29. The seventeen second-plate options range from $19 to $49, so expect your dinner to be on the "dear" side mon cheri.
All of which makes the reliably scrumptious desserts feel like a bargain at $9 (half that for single-serving ice cream). A dense and mesmerizing chocolate pate might be the richest of the seven options, its dark intensity accented by tiny slivers of hazelnut, a cloud of whipped cream, and perfect fresh raspberries as garnish. Competing in richness were the trio of creme brulee ramekins, brimming with flavors of vanilla raspberry, super-sweet caramelized banana, and quite sophisticated mocha. (My son had the good sense to order these, and I had the wisdom to taste each more than once.) The lavender lemon meringue tart was a tea party of browned curlicues, fruit coulis, and flowery flavor. Fruity crepes Suzette were perhaps the least flashy dessert, but only if you don't credit the skill that produced their pervasive and bewitching orange flavor. The homemade ice cream sampler ranged from eccentric brie cheese to zen-like cardamom.
The highs are high at the Standard, and the lows aren't surprising for a very ambitious endeavor with not even half a year under its belt. Balancing aspiration and execution is tricky, sometimes literally so--as when our server arrived with two opened wine bottles and a glass on a tray, awkwardly pouring the last few ounces from one bottle into the glass before adding a few ounces from the full second bottle, all while half-hovering with the tray in an over-the-shoulder blind spot.
The server said it was [S]tandard practice, and a follow-up call to co-sommelier Patrick Aretha confirmed that it's a "purposeful choice," intended to let diners see the labels on by-the-glass selections and provide a "touch of classiness." The sommeliers date the opened bottles, check their freshness before sending them back out, and pull anything with sediment out of rotation.
The jury may still be out on this flourish, but over time we'll surely see changes at the Standard. Flavor corrections to bring some of the appetizers in line with the sublimely balanced first and second plates will help. And the desserts already are among the best in town.
The Standard Bistro & Larder
5827 Jackson Rd.
Dinner: Mon.-Thurs. 4-10 p.m., Fri.- Sat. 4-11 p.m., Sun. 4-9 p.m.; Lunch: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Brunch: Sat. & Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner first plates $7-$15; soup and salad $5-$10; second plates $19-$49; desserts $9.
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