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Bistro VG: Post post-impressionist

Classic food with modern soul at the former Van Gogh's


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A man in a golf-pink sweater and silver hair is sitting at the large table next to us at Bistro VG, the newly redesigned Roswell restaurant formerly known as Van Gogh's. He is banging the table loudly.

"I've worked hard my whole life!" he bellows. "They don't work that hard, they don't know what hard work is!" He is informing the rest of his table, a group of well-coiffed older couples who look to be having a jolly good time, of the problems with immigrants.

The waitress, an attractive young woman with nerd-chic eyewear, seems to be holding her breath as she approaches the table. "Bring us another round of drinks, and some desserts!" the man hollers. "We're old, we need to go to bed!" The table erupts in laughter and the waitress (graciously, but with the cold gleam of murder in her eye) tries to get a more specific order and get away quickly. In this highly-designed room, the city and the suburbs loudly and giddily collide.

Institutional memory is a blessing and a curse. I never went to the hugely popular Van Gogh's before its transformation, and as such can make no comparison. What I can say is that this incarnation is beautiful, with airy white walls, blue accents and oversized light shades. Its almost Grecian feel is calming and modern and conjures an upscale seaside spa. That's quite an accomplishment for a suburban restaurant adjacent to a strip mall on the side of a highway.

Another striking quality is the service, which is both gracious and competent, and, the alcohol license bureau will be happy to know, is completely zealous about carding. (I'm no autumn hen, but it's been years since I was in the "possibly 21" category, and I've now been carded three times at Bistro VG.) Servers tend to have that friendly but carefully informed manner here, striking a delicate balance between warmth and professionalism.

The restaurant bills itself as serving modern French cuisine, and most of the dishes here fall into that category, although the addition of a wood-fired oven in the renovation brings pizzas to the table as well. Chef Eddie Garcia-Guzman is ambitious in both his breadth and depth.

Garcia-Guzman's menu is slightly overwhelming, with almost 50 dishes not including sides, meats and cheeses. Some of the best of these can be found on the easily missed "small plates" list, which is printed in a tiny font on the top right-hand corner of the menu. An uncomplicated plate of gently yielding potato gnocchi offset by shaved Parmesan and button mushrooms is lovely in its simplicity. Likewise, a small serving of sauteed chicken livers topped with onion-plum jam is classically straightforward.

Van Gogh's was famous for its crab cakes, and servers and diners alike still gush about the cream-based, vanilla-scented dish that Bistro VG wouldn't dare throw out with the old name. The crab cake is highly decadent, the cream that helps to bind it making it both addictive and dangerously rich.

Other appetizers tend toward bistro classics. Pudgy mussels in a saffron broth (which tasted like mustard) are served with a side of addictive frites, with mayonnaise for dipping. White-bean soup with truffle oil is velvety and comforting, although I found it too one-note to satisfy me through a whole bowl.

The best entrees also take their cues from the classics. While I share my colleague Cliff Bostock's disdain for salad Nicoise made with fresh tuna, Bistro VG's fresh tuna entree with a Nicoise accompaniment is delicious, more of a nod toward the traditional salad than a cute rethinking. Skate wing with brown butter and butternut squash is a pared-down dish with nutty undertones and a deliciously greasy butter finish.

Cod en Cocotte, served piping hot in a casserole with bortoleo beans, rosemary and bacon, is a fragrant and warming winter dish, and there lies one of my only complaints. This deep into spring, it would have been nice to see some more seasonal items on the menu. This may be due to the fact that the chef currently is on an extended leave of absence, but I'd love to see what Garcia-Guzman (or chef de cuisine Steve Hewins) could do with some fiddlehead ferns or even asparagus.

The one major misstep I encountered was with the chicken liver "faux-gras," a dish the restaurant is both highly enthusiastic about and wary of. Apparently the reluctance comes from the fact that customer reaction hasn't been great, a problem my waitress attributed to patrons' expectation that they would be served something similar to seared foie gras. "It's more like a mousse," she explained. I'm not sure that's the problem – I had been expecting a mousse all along, but what I got was more like a soup. Or, more accurately, a sludge. The ramekin of molten liver tasted nothing like foie gras, which is fine, because I love chicken liver in any incarnation, but the claim had been made. Worse, the thick liquid consistency is hard to take; it reminds me of the stage of making mousse after you've blended the hot livers with the cold butter and before you've put it in the fridge to cool. If anyone on this planet would be likely to appreciate hot liquid livers, it would be me. But I didn't.

Desserts look to the classics as well, but pastry chef Jessica Haight isn't content to stick with the safe stuff. Raspberry clafoutis is a delightful (if a little eggy) version of this warm custard. Plump plums rise provocatively from the flaky base of a tarte tatin. More than anything on the menu, the desserts have a painterly quality.

As the evening winds down, the room becomes quieter and a bare, convivial glow remains. The table-pounder and his group have gone home, and a few peaceful tables of dating couples smile contentedly at one another. Sometimes it's nice to embrace the new without lamenting the old.


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