Bistro 209 which opened this past June in the space formerly occupied by the Rusty Mackerel is a welcome addition to the Washington Heights dining scene. The kitchen, though small, covers a lot of ground under the capable leadership of chef Steven Giambrone. In a well-executed approach he and his kitchen offer a menu that includes everything from small plates to light sandwiches and salads to perfectly prepared mains and appetizers.
I visited Bistro 209 on three separate occasions. On my first two I concentrated on the lighter side of things, sandwiches, salads, small plates. On the last visit I sampled the entrees and appetizers. Perhaps the best starting point is to say that Chef Giambrone takes an approach to his food that is easy on the eyes and the palate and is at the same time exciting and innovative.
The small plates, grouped together under FOR THE TABLE are familiar yet each offers a playful twist. The Pigs in Blanket, that mid-century American favorite, is updated with the addition of cheddar cheese and jalapeno. The puff pastry crust is delicious. It can double as a small child’s dinner as well. The Hummus Pita, made in the restaurant, is flavorful and satisfying. The Latka (potato pancake) with spiced applesauce was particularly comforting as it reminded me of my mother’s version, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. But best of all was the Walnut Pate, which was exactly what one would want, a vegetarian alternative to a carnivore’s pleasure. It tastes like a fine French chicken liver mousse, only lighter and without the overpowering flavor of over-caramelized onions.
The starters are excellent as well. The salads are bright and flavorful, particularly the Arugula with strawberries and Parmesan. I am generally not a fan of fruit in salads but I was very impressed with how well this worked. I also like the fact that Chef Giambrone uses white anchovies in his Caesar salad, as I believe anchovies are a critical component in Caesar salad and have been eliminated by too many establishments as too strong for the American palate. Though I have not sampled it I have been told that the onion soup is excellent.
My favorite starter is the shrimp with cannellini beans. The cannellini beans are prepared in a simple sauce of red onion and fresh tomato. The onion and tomato are presented in bite size pieces rather than the usual fine dice most often used in restaurant kitchens. This rustic approach makes the dish seem like home cooking, which is exactly what I want in a casual restaurant. I felt like someone’s grandmother had prepared it for me. The shrimp were succulent and well seasoned not at all dry or overcooked. This dish is big enough to serve as a main.
We sampled many of the sandwiches over my three visits. The steak sandwich, in particular was exceptional. The meat was cooked to pink perfection and the combination of sautéed onions, chimichurri sauce and gruyere cheese with crusty bread makes for a satisfying meal. The hamburger was also cooked well, the meat presented as ordered and properly seasoned, perhaps the most important component of any burger. The pulled pork, which I had on my first visit and which I had been craving for some weeks hit the spot. It is well paired with cole slaw and topped with a tasty BBQ sauce. All the sandwiches are served with potatoes referred to as ‘spuds’, which are kind of a cross between a roasted potato and a home fry. I’m not a big fan of potatoes. I loved these.
Perhaps the most interesting and original sandwich is the Nicoise Sandwich. I have never seen anything like this before. Crusty bread spread with a delicious olive tapenade topped with romaine leaves and perfectly cooked tuna steak slices. Spuds and haricot vert, both critical components of a Nicoise salad, accompany the sandwich. But be warned, use your nice and fork. It’s too big to chomp on!
On our last visit we sampled two of the entrees, the roasted chicken and the salmon. I believe the quality of a roast chicken is the barometer of how well a kitchen performs. In this case this kitchen gets an A+. The same is true of the salmon. The chicken is dressed with delicious sautéed mushrooms and the salmon with a zesty escabeche sauce. Both are served with the best mashed potatoes I have ever eaten, and again I don’t like potatoes. I’ll eat these any and every day. On my first visit we also sampled the mac and cheese, which was gooey and crunchy all at the same time. Another perfect choice for the kids while the adults enjoy a more sophisticated menu choice.
The service on all three visits was excellent and consistent and the space is comfortable though small. The staff is friendly and helpful. Overall I would say Bistro 209 is a great fit for the neighborhood and predict it’s here to stay.
209 Pinehurst, New York, NY
A J Sidransky is the author of two novels set in upper Manhattan, Forgiving Maximo Rothman and Stealing a Summer’s Afternoon. His third novel Forgiving Mariela Camacho, also set in the Heights will be released September 30, 2015. He is a frequent contributor to Uptown Collective. He is also a graduate of the French Culinary Institute. He lives in Washington Heights. Check out his website at www.ajsidransky.com