First look: Bess Bistro

bess.jpgThat’s not only look; this place merits repeat visits. The lunch menu’s not all that different from the dinner menu. Dinner has more items daily and also a regular special to mark each day of the week. As soon as today’s game ended, we were on our way to Bess, which is in the basement of the old Stratford Arms, once apartments and then for a while home of a financial institution before a memorable big economic crash. Bess Bistrot is open continuously until doors close at night, six days a week. There’s a break in food service, though: lunch service ends at 4 and dinner begins at five. The kitchen’s tiny; that’s why.

There were at least two, and perhaps three, large flatscreen televisions. They were muted, though, and it’s possible to sit away from their sight and sound. This may be a basement establishment (this image is from the awning covering the entry stairs), but there’s nothing cavelike about it, even in the daytime. The banquettes, astonishingly, were actually comfortable. The acoustics promote conversation, but the seating is such that there’s no eavesdropping. Sight-lines will encourage table-hopping. The soundtrack, not over-loud, tended toward the cabaret side: some non-intrusive vocals, some jazz, some “world music.” There were giant, extravagant bouquets of flamboyant blooms, including lilies. True gaslights flared from the walls. The fixtures were akin to coachlamps, but I haven’t seen anything even remotely like that since the days of Gage & Tollner.

Of the two kinds of bread that came to the table, the multi-grain slices incorporating toasted nuts or seeds, or both, tasted wonderful and would be great chicken-salad foundations. The three-bean soup met with approval all round the table. The salad did not arrive with the promised blood-orange vinaigrette; somehow a goat-cheese concoction had erroneously been applied. Fish came to the table piping hot and in a generous portion. The fellow diner who engages in the minor hobby of sampling a cavalcade of crabcakes around town approved of these. Luncheon items not tasted but tempting for another day included shepherd’s pie, the “Bess Burger” as described, and a plate of flank steak and fried potatoes. Can the pot pie at supper be as good as it sounds? The bar was doing a brisk cocktail business, lifting the spirits of those arriving at frequent intervals still in their burnt-orange colors. There were four desserts: one I can’t remember; the others were tres leches cake, apple pie with Mexican-vanilla ice cream, and a flourless chocolate cake with a raspberry sauce; this latter was elegant and rich. Bess Bistro opened just over a week ago. I hope that the future’s a rosy one.

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