Trompe l'oeil means "trick of the eye" and is a painting technique in which the artist makes an image that appears to be in three dimensions. At NoHo Bistro, they use this to great effect on the walls, with two murals evoking Parisian street scenes. You just might be tempted to stroll into them.
There really is no equivalent term to suggest a tricking of the taste buds. And there really isn't a need for one here. The flavors are simple, fresh, thoughtful and straight-forward. And, for the most part, tempting to dig into.
The restaurant just celebrated its fourth anniversary, but has only been serving dinner for about half that time. It grew out of the successful lunch and catering business of chef-owners Jessica Raia-Long and Tina Hurless.
The dining room gives the feeling of an understated elegance. Big, antique furniture forms the business area of the entrance. A chalkboard wall lists the specials of the evening. Off to the right, classic bistro tables sit under draperies woven through the industrial ceiling. They play the part of the awning in this Euro-sidewalk cafe. It works.
The menu takes care to acknowledge local sourcing where possible. And a seasonal menu change is coming soon, so many of the dishes we tried may not be on the upcoming update.
Simple and fresh make an appetizer like the three hearts salad ($8) a success. When I saw the name, I stopped reading the menu to see if I could figure out what the three hearts were. I got artichoke and palm, then was stumped. The third is romaine. Duh. The three come together nicely under a honey-lime dressing, the honey from Tampa's Eden's Nectar farm.
NoHo also riffs on nachos, with an appetizer of bison chili over corn dippers ($9). The super-lean bison makes for a really soft bite of meat, and the sour cream and cheddar allay any fear that this might be health food. The menu doesn't include the sourcing for the "corn dippers," but I suspect it is Frito-Lay. Classic.
The lump crab cakes ($10) tasted great but the name promised something it didn't quite deliver. They were light and crispy with a smooth and creamy interior accompanied with a perfectly tart lemon-mustard sauce. But while the crab might have started out as lump meat, the consistency of ours was smooth.
Among the entrees, we found that "simple" can mean a couple of things.
The seared ahi tuna (market price, $20 when we were there) is simple. A beautiful piece of fish gets salt and pepper and is barely introduced to heat and served rare as requested. Start with quality fish and stay out of its way. That's the right thing to do.
Same goes for the butter-roasted flat iron steak ($18). Perfect medium rare, and so tender that a butter knife dismantled it into bite-sized bits.
With the chicken scaloppini ($15), simple meant something different. All the components were good; the seared strips of chicken breast, the spinach pasta with pesto and tomato. But it didn't feel like something that a modestly ambitious home cook couldn't put together quickly.
But when you get to dessert, the banana-amaretti crostata ($7) reminds you why you went out to a restaurant. The almond crust is crispy and chewy, filled with soft banana and topped with warm caramel. It's like Bananas Foster gone upscale. Add a dollop of cinnamon-spiced whipped cream and it's hardly even fair.
Also intriguing was the idea of a chocolate carrot cake ($8). It came in the form of a mini-Bundt, which may be its undoing. The cake was more chocolate than carrot, but all the surface area of the individual cake left it a little dry.
A short, thoughtful wine list was deemed almost superfluous on one visit because of the presence of general manager Tomas Carrasquillo. He talked to us at length about what we liked in wine, what we were eating, and made suggestions. He pointed us toward a Rioja ($7.75) with the steak. I would not have come to that on my own, but it was a great pairing. The peppery wine complemented the steak while the fruitiness contrasted it, each making the other better.
Back to trickery. There is a little in the name. NoHo refers to N Howard Avenue, which is a block over and the address of the original location. But N Armenia doesn't lend itself to any fun abbreviation, does it?
Jim Webster can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8746. Webster dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.