After poor service, noise is the second-leading complaint about restaurants. When I started reviewing restaurants a couple decades ago, posh restaurant design included thick carpet, drapes, plush tablecloths, soft upholstered chairs, the faint tinkle of music and dapper servers who recited the evening's specials in hushed tones — all things that, incidentally, minimize ambient noise. Times have changed. Linen-free tables, high ceilings, lots of unclothed windows, loud music, wood floors and huge, boisterous bars open to the dining room have exponentially ratcheted up acoustical challenges, challenges that are often met by restaurateurs with a "whaddayagonna do" shrug.
Noise means buzz and buzz is good, right?
Bizou Brasserie, the upscale restaurant in the new Le Méridien hotel, which opened in June in the 1905 Beaux Arts-style federal courthouse on Florida Avenue, is loud. Airstrip loud. My first visit was on a Friday evening, our server hoarse from yelling right from the start. Fronted by the Longitude Bar wrapped on all sides by shiny marble walls and floors, even at half full, the dining room is swamped by bar noise.
I wish this was my only beef. The restaurant is managed by SoHo Hospitality, the company behind Ciro's Speakeasy and Restaurant, Boca Kitchen Bar Market, and CopperFish, all of which I've written about glowingly in the past few years. With Chas Brock as principal investor, Kevin Enderle and Michael Blesser overseeing things, and restaurant veterans like general manager Tami Powers (from the Palm), the stage is set for a professional operation.
But service needs attention at this young restaurant. As a business lunch locale, it's tough because nobody hustles to get you in and out, with long lags before visits to the table and maddening periods of time awaiting a check. These things matter less at dinner time, but servers assiduously avoid making eye contact with tables not in their section. Drop a napkin or need an extra spoon? No one comes to the rescue except your own server — even dining room managers don't seem to comb the room anticipating needs.
Despite a glamorous setting and a lovely bakery and pastry bar at its front, the culinary message at Bizou is muddled. The menu design is pure Parisian brasserie but its contents are not. Flatbreads, focaccia sandwiches, Caesar salad and a French dip (French is in the title, but this sandwich "au jus" hails from Los Angeles) make the menu a more generic hodgepodge. It's a shame because the space really lends itself to classic brasserie fare, an underrepresented cuisine in the Tampa Bay area.
There are a number of solid options at lunch and at dinner, namely a fan of rosy pan-seared duck breast slices ($26) served with a sumptuous scoop of celery root puree, a dribble of sweet demiglace and a duck confit tart. There's an attractive goat cheese tomato tart ($14), although the crust was disappointingly soft, a solid brioche-bun burger with caramelized onion and gooey goat and Brie cheese ($17 — that's an expensive burger) and a traditional frisee salad with pancetta lardons and a softly poached egg ($12).
With that burger, though, and with other grilled items like the hanger steak frites ($27), the grill itself imparts an unpleasant charred flavor (a far cry from the gorgeous smoke infusion at CopperFish). There's also some goofy stuff going on with seafood: A shrimp cocktail ($18) brings four floppy prawns on a bed of ice, under which is a big pile of mesclun mix. The cocktail sauce is straightforward, but you wonder what you're supposed to do with sodden, half frozen salad.
Wine prices are high (an Educated Guess cab sells for about $15 a bottle retail; it's offered at Bizou for $15 per glass), and while house cocktails (all $13 to $14) show innovation and style, they are sometimes tweaked too sweet.
The end of this summer will feature a number of exciting and high-profile debuts for bay area restaurants. In the increasingly competitive landscape, Bizou has the advantage of a tremendously gorgeous and historic setting, but it will have to tighten up on service and address acoustical issues in order to thrive.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.