Sunday, March 29, 2009

Good, Better, Best: Petit Robert Bistro, Needham

What does it mean if a bite of an apple tarte tatin makes one teary? And if a scoop of cassis sorbet makes one gasp with visions of eating gelato in Italy? And then, when the bill comes you laugh as you realize that the prices are so reasonable that you could actually come here again…with the kids!

Petit Robert Bistro in Needham is in a class all of its own for many reasons. The first is the food which is surprisingly fantastic for a restaurant in the suburbs. (That alone may be reason to celebrate!) Second, the prices, which have not been raised since 2005, make it possible to eat here without having to take out a loan. In fact until 5:00 p.m. Monday through Sunday they have a “lunch menu” that includes entrees like “Chicken Crepe” and “Filet of Sole” in addition to eggs, omelettes and soup…all averaging $8.00. Finally, and best of all for a FoodieMommy blog, their children’s menu is one of the best I have seen. It offers not only your typical hot dog, but items such as “burgerdog baguette” “petit steak frites” and “quart de poulet frites” (A quarter of a roast chicken). And did I mention that this place has white linen tablecloths?The irony-when friends of ours, parents to a 3 year old and 4 month old told us they had taken the kids to Petit Robert for dinner I laughed. “What were they thinking?” I told my husband. “Petit Robert is a high end restaurant that is reserved for birthday dinners and fancy nights out.” However, talking to the staff and looking over the menu helped me to understand how unique a restaurant this is for parents in particular. In fact, although the Needham restaurant is the 3rd Petit Robert (one is located in Kenmore Square and another is in the South End) it was the first to offer a children’s menu when it opened this past December. By offering really good food to parents and children, it is possible to save on the babysitter and still have a great night out with the kids.

This time, I will confess we went without our little boys. Invited by Petit Robert, I wasn’t fully convinced that we could fully enjoy (and, let’s be practical here, photograph) the food with the kids. Their bistro offers a wide range of dishes, from fish to chicken to liver. We began with a simple salad of field greens with shallot vinaigrette on the side. The best element was the panko coated goat cheese. The warmth of the goat cheese, with the crispness of the panko perfectly balanced and made the dish.

My main course was the sole, a perfect testament to the strengths of this restaurant. For $14.75, I had a deftly prepared enormous piece of sole, sauteed enough to create a crisp and savory edge while retaining the moistness and flavor of the fish. The potatoes were a buttery and creamy decadence. The side of carrots, green beans and onions were cooked just enough to be tender while still retaining their bite.

My husband had the steak frites which, to our surprise, was the weakest point of the evening. The steak was good, don’t get me wrong, but the sauce Bearnaise (a creamy tarragon) was overly acidic and gloppy. I prefered the Bordelaise, composed of a red wine reduction and mushrooms. The steak itself (which, honestly, despite recommendations from our waitress, FoodieDaddy ordered medium) was a bit chewy. The fries were clearly fried to order and while not the blistering darkness of Belgian fries, they were still salty, crisp and warm enough to be almost worth the calories.

For a side dish we tried the salsify and parsnip gratin. I had envisioned (well, dreamed) of root vegetables covered in sinful layers of cream and Gruyere in the more traditional style of France. Instead, and perhaps for the best, they arrived perfectly roasted and covered with a light layer of Parmesan.And now, the desserts. As soon as I saw Grand Marnier soufflé listed I grabbed the waitress (because, you know, it was likely that Petit Robert would have a sudden Wednesday evening mad dash for soufflés!) Ironically, it was a good decision as the soufflés are baked to order and need to be put in the oven 20 minutes in advance. And oh, it was so good-moist, delicate, with the burning warmth of Grand Marnier and the coolness of the crème anglaise.

As good as that was, the tarte tatin will be the reason I return again and again. The crust was excellent-buttery without being too rich and perfectly crisp. But it was the apples that made the night-somehow caramelized so deeply as to turn brown black, but still being sweet without being cloying. I loved each bite spread with the crème fraiche which added an herby note to the dish.

Finally, our waitress raved about the gelatos, made daily in a Paco Jet machine. This means that our cassis sorbet, tasted of pure fruit with a consistency like the most delicious frozen mousse you have eaten. The blood orange was so tangy as to be too bitter for my tastes, but I loved the citrus notes of the passion fruit.

Until we can afford to take the kids to Paris (heck to take them anywhere), we’ll be back with the kids soon.

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