A story made a big splash a couple of weeks ago in the food-writing world. It was on Thrillist, by Kevin Alexander, titled “I Found the Best Burger Place in America. And Then I Killed It.” Among other things, it was a story of how sometimes restaurants or restaurateurs can be victims of their own success. They can capture the public’s eye, become an overnight sensation, and promptly decompensate into a puddle of goo.
I’ve seen it happen after a positive review or even after a social media love blitz. On my second visit to the Left Bank Bistro, I wondered if overnight success might have made it wobbly. It was Friday night in mid-November and the whole staff was frazzled. We’re almost out of food, they said. We’ll have to check to see if the kitchen is still accepting new orders, they said. The subtext: Please don’t take offense, but go away; we’ve hit the wall.
We persevered. We ordered what was left. We had a lovely time.
But this French-ish bistro, which opened in early October after a long delay, is a conundrum. Owned by Susanne Byram, it debuted with Kate Gorr, formerly of Stillwaters Tavern, at the helm in the kitchen. Dec. 4 will be her last day. Irreconcilable differences. (“Sometimes thing don’t work out,” Gorr said diplomatically.) The original sous chef, Thomas Mussarra, is coming back to take over in the kitchen, and Byram is looking for more hires.
That’s a lot of flux for a new restaurant. But what has me excited about the Left Bank Bistro is this: It’s gorgeous, one of the prettiest restaurants to debut this year, set in a 1920s bungalow with a loosely 1920s Left Bank art-scene motif (cool black-and-white photos of Hemingway, Picasso and their party peeps). It’s got lovely wood floors and a peaked ceiling that dangles with huge chandeliers topped by smart little black shades. There’s a convivial back porch that seems to be the instant Girls’ Night Out go-to (seriously, one evening the gender ratio out there was 3:1), as well as a chic front seating area of cheetah print furniture and a little side dining room with wallpaper I absolutely covet.
The food, thus far, hits a nice classic brasserie note, although there seems to be a lot of variability: One evening’s chicken liver pate was a light, butter-smooth spreadable crock; the next time it was a splotchy, rougher disc, totally different in texture and flavor. Both times good, but probably not a good sign in terms of building a loyal customer base.
It adopts an all-day approach, with a short but punchy lunch lineup. The banh mi sandwich achieves great flavor and texture with its pickled veggies and miso-stewed short rib ($13), whereas a tarragon chicken salad sandwich on a flaky warm croissant needed more moisture or smaller hunks of chicken so the whole thing didn’t fall apart ($12).
It’s an easy place to stop by for a coffee and a pastry, or early evening for a happy hour of bar bites and a glass of wine — $7 gets you that pate, or a bowl of Moroccan almonds (they were candied and baked, not fry blanched with sea salt and paprika as advertised — tasty, but sweet and not savory as I expected), or a little cheese board or order of frites with a luscious aioli. (Would love to see a veggie or little salad option for happy hour.)
While the wine list has some charming and unusual quaffs by the glass, there’s also a funky cocktail list named after Parisian denizens of the ’20s. I wonder what Gertrude Stein would have thought about her namesake drink with Old St. Pete gin, Pimm’s, cucumber, ginger beer, strawberry, lemon and lime — certainly a lot of there there.
I’ll be looking to see what Gorr does next, and it’s unclear whether Mussarra will keep the ship sailing in the same direction. But dinner at Left Bank, which I experienced once solo avec a good book and once with a raucous group of friends, is a treat. I’m a sucker for moules frites (market price), the fries dunkable in a cream-richened bacony-leeky broth, but there’s nothing wrong with tucking into a fat bistro burger with wild mushroom duxelle and melty Brie given sweet-tart high notes with bacon jam and pickled onion ($14.50).
Downtown St. Pete has had a banner year for restaurants. This newcomer is a bit away from the fray, a boon because it comes with a full parking lot and a wraparound porch that lacks downtown’s frenetic quality. Here’s hoping Byram and her crew settle into a groove that matches the luxuriousness of the setting.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.
The Left Bank Bistro
1225 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 256-1691; theleftbankbistro.com
Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Details: AmEx, V, MC, Disc.; full bar; reservations accepted; takeout but no delivery
Prices: Lunch $9-$17; dinner entrees $14.50-$26
Rating, out of four stars:
Food: *** Service: **