(Doesn’t this look gorgeous?!?!)
Eating at a fine establishment is one my life’s simplest pleasures. I never underestimate the sensation and euphoric state I enter during and after an exquisite dinner.
It’s not very often I allow myself to be bound to a single chair for an extended period of time; unless of course I’m with friends or family and the time naturally escapes me. For the first time in my dining experience, I found myself not taking note of time while eating. I was in the company of complete strangers and I was the invited guest. Knowing I was being catered to comes with a responsibility to know a bit of history of where you’re being hosted and perhaps even have some questions prepared. The experience can’t be a fully complete one if I walk away having no more information than when I walked in.
An early dinner at Bistro, a French-inspired restaurant in Antler Hill at Biltmore Estate was more than I expected it to be. I was prepared for a simple late lunch, indulging possibly in a great sandwich and fresh pomme frites or a light fish dish in a refined sauce, a rich dessert and strong café. What I didn’t know or expect was for the Estate’s Executive and the winemaker, a French man, to be my hosts.
Fortunately for me, I’m able to talk through any situation and immediately found myself very comfortable in the company of fine men with tremendous talent. Admittedly, I was not emotionally prepared to embrace the 7 course meal I was in for.
(Interior of Bistro. Image c/o Biltmore Estate)
A friendly introduction to Chef Damien Cavicchi at Bistro’s relaxed and unpretentious entrance, led us to our table, facing a window that looked out to the center plaza at Antler Hill. Our tables were dressed in white and blue gingham linen, a touch that toned down any fancy pretenses the customized menu eluded. The vibe went well with the rest of the restaurant’s decor: laid back, ambient, inviting with an open kitchen, a la Joel Robuchon and very bistro-ish.
Our first course was a cast iron seared lobster with creamed corn, buttermilk panna cotta, a round saffron beignet and fried pine nuts. While I didn’t bite into the very course that kicked out what was going to be a 4-hour tryst, I did sit back and enjoy the vibrant colors and and ocean water aroma it presented.
The second course was perfectly prepared duck liver pâté. Served with thinly sliced baguette, the texture was on point and the flavor very reminiscent of fois gras and other pâtés I’ve enjoyed in Central and Southern France. Chef Damien advised that he felt it necessary to include this French classic on the menu in order to maintain the restaurants authentic concept.
(Chef Damien plating at Bistro. Image c/o Biltmore Estate)
Chef Cavicchi comes from a familiar background: surrounded by good food cooked by his mother, grew to love food and traveled the country in search of his special niche. His idea of good food is using fresh and natural ingredients, which is by default the only way to go at the Biltmore. Their culinary program is supported by a massive produce garden and a solid relationship with local famers. At any given moment, Chef pulls necessary ingredients from the garden to execute his well-desinged menu.
His detail to style and season is reflective in all of his dishes, most notably in the pâté.
Our third course was a wonderful transition into the slated heavier courses. A butter-poached grouper was thick enough to confuse with halibut. It was served with a boudin tortellini, another in-house creation, chunky mushrooms, thyme, sherry vinegar and paired with the Estate’s 2010 Chardonnay. The wine option, obviously recommended by the quiet wine-maker, was intelligent. The notes were light but opened up the robust mushroom sauce right when it needed to. I opted for a meatless tortellini but still enjoyed the simplicity of the dish. The mushrooms complemented the grouper so nicely, there was nothing to be missed in a pork-fillled pasta. In fact, I’d dare say it was probably better since there were no real competing textures or flavor. The vinegar foam did add some interesting texture and somewhat felt appropriate as we moved to a pear and Limoncello sorbet.
After three fantastic courses, a really light and acidic palate cleanser helped my tastebuds settle down. The crispy fried basil was a colorful touch and gave the entire moment a passing Italian tone.
At this point I was full enough to call it quits but reading butternut squash on the menu allowed me to mentally make room for at least one more course. And I still had to leave some space for dessert. This kind of eating requires a lot pacing and less sipping of the spirits. And while this gal can eat like healthy man, I didn’t want to embarrass myself by possibly smashing my face into a plate. I was so close to sinking into my seat and unzipping my jeans….
The charred lamb tenderloin with whipped squash, a spring brussel sprout Gremolata, pomegranate-onion jam and salted hazelnut shortbread was my favorite course. A really good restaurant will ask how you’d like your meat cooked. A great restaurant will know the best way to enjoy the served cut and simply trust you enjoy their dish. Chef Cavicchi’s team knew to serve a medium rare piece of lamb. If you haven’t figured it out, the juxtaposition with a crispy cookie was divine and insanely genius. The complexity of flavors in this dish were heightened but elegantly executed. The Reserve Pinot Noir was simple and wonderful with the shortbread. It wasn’t too complex so as to allow the tender lamb to really stand out.
Our main course was not as interesting, but definitely in keeping with the restaurant’s theme. I’ve never entertained the idea of eating beef tartar. Yes its’a French staple and yes it’s quite sophisticated, but the thought of raw beef is simply not sexy to me. However, when you’re sitting across from the very person that’s single handedly responsible for all of the food served in America’s largest and most famous private home, you can’t help but muster a visible amount of interest (and a certain amount of faith); if not intrigue. I fared well and for the first time, I devoured the entire helping with no inhibition! I was very surprised with myself, honestly and geared myself to tell Chef that I’d never had beef tartar — not even in France. Not.even.in.France.
Unlike other beef tartar dishes I’ve seen and come close to trying, Bistro’s recipe may be considered a slight cheat. It was lightly marinated in citric juices, therefore cooking it enough to bear. The egg was cooked to a bright yellow, runny amount which also helped dim down the the intensity of a raw beef. On the other half of the plate was a braised short rib with mustard-white bean ragout, truffle biscuits and dressed iceberg. Not exactly a perfect paring, and probably too much with the tartar, but the cooked rib was succulent, extremely juicy and lovely with the flakey truffle biscuit. I would have preferred to enjoy a bigger serving of that and forgo the tartar altogether. One or the other would have sufficed as both were independently bold.
After a full plate of amazing cheese and fruit, a natural enjoyment at any French table, came dessert. I enjoyed a ricotta cake with chamomile poached apricots and ginger honey ice cream. Smart and creative cooks can take an ingredient not always loved and transform it into a piece of irresistible decadence. This is exactly what I thought as I nibbled on the “cheese” cake. I’m not a fan of ricotta in any form, though I’ve cooked with it and even enjoyed it in those few instances, but as a cake, it was pure lush. With its perfect form, spongy texture and spicy homemade ice cream, this final plate was the absolute perfect way to end a filling dinner. There was nothing I’d change about the pairing other than perhaps add some contrasting color. Some green would have popped. Truthfully, the sunny plate was pretty and nothing additional would have made it any better.
Dinner for me is never complete or worth talking about without a suitable cappuccino. I enjoyed a frothy one but was in a deep coma thanks to the dessert. Needless to admit I took three sips and called it finito!
Southern restaurants usually incorporate an element of the region’s culture. No matter the featured cuisine, in this case French, you’d be sure to have an infusion of Southern flare. What I loved about Bistro was their approach to remain mostly true to French (and some fine American) style without missing a beat and still fitting into a very Southern culture. The backdrop to this open, airy yet quaint restaurant is a forrest replete with history and style. Short of being on a cobblestone street in central France, Bistro takes you to a special place where the only requisite is for you to have an open mind. Chef will whip up anything. Enjoy his fancy. It’s well worth the dime.
BISTRO AT ANTLER HILL AT BILMORE ESTATE
1 Lodge St.
Biltmore, N.C. 28803
Appetizer: $8-$12 | Dinner: $30- $50 |Dessert: $8-$12
See a full menu.
*this post is part of private media visit I enjoyed to Biltmore Estate and Bistro. Dinner was complimentary and the menu was customized to showcase the diversity Bistro offers. I was not compensated for this review and all of the opinions are honest and my very own.
* Bistro is open to guests of Biltmore Inn.