For many humans, change is often not much fun and even less frequently welcome—and woe betide the established restaurant that doesn't tread lightly where transformation is concerned.
In that regard, Bistro By the Tracks is almost feline in its ability to land on its feet. After two relocations, an ownership change, and gradual gentrification, the restaurant remains alive and cooking. And now, with the installment of Christopher Stallard as the new chef behind the menu, the restaurant is plotting another course change.
Stallard has the credentials and some of the trappings that one expects from a chef of merit. His notable past includes stages at both the Napa Valley's French Laundry and Chicago's Alinea. At times you might even spy a pair of tweezers on his person like a merit badge for meticulous garnishment—though he insists that he doesn't garnish anything unnecessarily. Stallard aims to make beautiful food that will also access guests' flavor memories of their own happy past.
The Bistro's food has always been attractive, and this remains true as Stallard feels his way around a kitchen that comes with some decades-long guest relationships. Yet the changes are welcome and well executed. This longtime Bistro patron was happy to see an increased continental influence in the menu; it's not that there's anything wrong with the New Southern ethos that, at times, has defined this and many other local kitchens, but it is refreshing not to face a pile of tarted-up grits under every protein.
Stallard's cooking is meticulous and precise with flashes of wit—if you encounter celery, you can expect to see celery in three different guises. This is true of the Buffalo Sweetbreads where celery leaves, shaved stalks, and pureed root (seasoned as ranch dressing) complement the dish and make it familiar and fun, as well as delicious.
All told, the Bistro remains an elegant and special place to dine. Stallard may bring a welcome breath of fresh air to the kitchen, but the quality of wine and bar service, and the professionalism and hospitality of the management team, remain as inspiring as always.
Seared Scallops: Here, magical green kale appears in two tasty guises: crispy chips and a tender braise. The braise is delicately seasoned with vinegar, which adds an enlivening contrast to the sweet, fat, and creamy shellfish. The sweet and sour elements are happily Thai-ed up with crushed peanuts and mild Madras curry. If you've ever wondered about the point of foam, you'll find it well explained here where its expression of coconut and lemon adds a flavorful touch that isn't merely a remnant of the better-cooking-through-chemistry playbook.
Pan-Roasted Chicken Breast: It is in this main dish that Stallard best achieves his goal to access flavor memories. From the first bite it is a buzz-giving flight of recollections of grandmother's chicken and dumplings or chicken pot pie. A chicken breast, moist and toothsome with skin well-crisped, hovers above an elegantly simple blend of potato gnocchi, glazed vegetables, bits of duck confit, and a classic by-the-book velouté. It's a modern and gorgeous presentation, and the flavors, though refined and uplifted, might prompt an ambitious eater to another Remembrance of Things Past, or a famished one to channel Oliver Twist: "Please, sir, I want some more."
Bourbon and Coke Cake: Perhaps you remember the celebrated oddity and delight of a Coca Cola cake from church potlucks past. If so, fasten your seat belts: The Bistro's version of this dessert is a bar of dense cake with firm and thick chocolate icing that you might pick up to eat except that you'll want to mingle it with bites of Cruze buttermilk ice cream and gooey chocolate syrup. It's a compelling treat that you'll want all to yourself. The cubes of homemade marshmallow and bourbon and Coke gelée are cute if superfluous, but the candied pecans make a perfect addition to this very happy ending.