Though famous for their world-renowned haute cuisine many French people will tell you that it’s “le cuisine gran-mere,” the cooking of their grandmothers that warms their heart. That is true of many a chef and clearly is the case for Carlos Swepson, the chef/owner of BLVD Bistro located at 2149 Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
Born in Natchez, Mississippi, Chef Swepson learned to cook at his grandmother’s knee, starting with, as he told me, breakfast foods (which, thankfully, we will get back to later) moving up through and mastering the culinary bible of Southern and Creole cooking. He refined his craft at the Art Institute of New York and in the kitchens of John-George Vongerichten, taking the foods of his tradition and elevating them to the next level. In a time when so many heralded restaurants offer textbook fare devoid of any heart, Swepson’s perfectly executed plates burst with love.
BLVD Bistro came under Chef Swepson’s guiding hand in March 2014. It is a pleasant, homey space of less than 50 seats. The wait staff is friendly and helpful but in no way intrusive. Often Chef Swepson circulates about the room speaking with the customers, something rarely seen today. In fact you feel like you’re in the comfort of his home kitchen.
The meal starts off with what is unquestionably the best biscuit I have ever eaten, and I’ve eaten a lot of biscuits. Light, fluffy, crisp on the outside, and warm. It’s served with a rich compound butter sweetened with cane sugar syrup. I would have been happy with a tray of these alone.
We sampled two appetizers on the Chef’s recommendations, the Fried Chicken Sliders and the Beef Short Rib Tacos. Both were excellent. The sliders could have served as my meal with any side dish from the menu. The portion was more than generous while not gluttonous. The magic? The boneless fried chicken breast in a perfect crunchy batter is served on yes, a biscuit. The meat was juicy, the dressing tangy, the melted cheddar cheese warming. It was superb. The Short Rib Tacos were also a treat. The meat was soft and flavorful and the red cabbage slaw garnish with sour cream made the plate unique.
The arrival of our entrees defined the level of Chef Swepson’s craft. They were plated with the elegance of classic French cuisine, inviting the diner to feast with his eyes before taking the first bite. And the first bite? Fantastic. The Fried Chicken, completely different than the sliders, was light and crispy, no overwhelming oiliness so common to the dish. The meat was tender and juicy. The accompanying collard greens and black-eyed peas (my mustard allergy prevented me from sampling the potato salad usually served with the dish) were robust in flavor and perfectly executed. The greens were sweet and the black-eyed peas earthy and redolent of the smoked turkey legs with which they were stewed.
We also sampled the Slow Cooked Pork Ribs and the Turkey Meat Loaf, both of which were well prepared and beautifully presented. The candied yams, which came with the ribs made me think of Thanksgiving. The turkey meat loaf was dressed with ketchup, a homey touch which I appreciated as my mother used to make it that way. The more than adequate portion hid a pile of creamy mashed potatoes and a stack of roasted green beans. The result was simple pleasure.
By far the best entrée and the best reinterpretation is the Mississippi Cornmeal Crusted Grouper. Chef Swepson’s intentional substitution of grouper for catfish is genius. The grouper is a meatier, more delicate and less gelatinous filet and plays perfectly against both the cornmeal crust and the accompanying upgraded succotash of corn, tomatoes and okra. Swepson’s finesse with the vegetable made it succulent and enticing rather than the usual slimy. Luckily the grouper also appears on the Brunch menu.
Did someone say brunch? Yes, I did. Now remember the Chef’s self-admitted first experience in cooking was breakfast items and he certainly mastered them. The Shrimp and Grits were by far the best item on a menu of excellent choices. The grits were creamy and addictive. The shrimp prepared perfectly. The garnish of bacon, jalapeno and cheddar elevated the dish to a new level.
We also sampled the Crab Cake Benedict and the Blueberry Pancakes. The crab cakes were excellent alone. The addition of poached eggs and hollandaise really makes an argument for losing the English muffin in the original dish. I can’t say enough about the pancakes. One would think it’s an easy thing to make but no, not really. These were crispy on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside and smothered in blueberry compote and creme fresh, more like a blueberry pie than a pancake.
As to dessert we had the German Chocolate Cake and the Banana Bread Pudding on separate visits. Cudos to anyone who can bake a layered cake in a kitchen this size. The frosting was a treat as well. As to the Banana Bread Pudding it was a life changing experience. I’m not sure if it was bread pudding with bananas in it or banana bread turned into bread pudding. In either case it’s not to be missed on your first visit.
BLVD Bistro is a fine addition to uptown dining. I’d recommend you make some quick reservations because the photographer from the New York Times was there taking pictures for their review the night we were there and after that I doubt it will be easy to get a table.
A J Sidransky is the author of two novels set in upper Manhattan, Forgiving Maximo Rothman and Stealing a Summer’s Afternoon. He is also a graduate of the French Culinary Institute. He lives in Washington Heights.