If ranked by ratio of historic culinary importance to square footage, the Bistro at the Maison de Ville would top the list. A tiny restaurant, originally designed to serve the guests in a small hotel. But from its first day to its last, the Bistro (that’s what its regulars always called the place, despite the many other restaurants with “bistro” in their names) was the approximate location of the cutting edge in New Orleans restaurant cookery.
It all began when the owners of the hotel hired Susan Spicer as its first chef. Susan was known to gourmets in the city–she had been one of the early members of the cadre of young chefs who had set about transforming the New Orleans dining. But in 1986, she had nowhere near the eminence she does today. The Bistro was such a smash during the Susan years that she was inevitably wooed away to become a partner in Bayona, her entry into the big time.
Nobody knew it then, but Susan established a trend at The Bistro. Her successor was John Neal, whose skills were equal to Susan’s, but different. He was there a couple of years, until he opened Peristyle in the former Marti’s. Next in line was Dominique Macquet, who after he left opened not just one signature restaurant, but several. (He’s currently at Saveur on Magazine Street.) Patty Queen was next. She had a good run, then left town. She has a place in Connecticut, now.
Her successor was the chef who broke the mold by staying in the Bistro’s kitchen longer than all the other chefs put together. Greg Picolo, a French Quarter resident and lifelong Orleanian, held onto the dedicated regular customers until The Bistro died after a few years of Katrina aftermath.
One more character starred in the serial drama of The Bistro. Patrick Van Hoorebeck, native of Brussels, managed the Bistro’s dining room and the wine cellar for most of the restaurant’s run. Patrick–who is now the owner of Bar Vin on Bienville at Bourbon–was extremely knowledgeable about service and wine. And he was a convivial personality. Among his other activities, he became King For Life of the Krewe Of Cork, which parades every year during the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience.
All of these talented people shared such a tiny space that it’s a wonder they were able to create such an engaging restaurant. The cramped aspect of the restaurant was everywhere you looked. A lot of the cooking went on outside in the kitchen, in the hotel’s courtyard. Tables were so small that a guest’s girth figured into the seating plan. The only way to get a good table was to show up with six or eight or more people and have the tables along the banquette shoved together.
Hurricane Katrina shut down both the restaurant and the hotel. The Bistro returned with new owners: Mike Naimone and Chef Greg, who brought it back the way it was. In spring 2009, a fire next door shut the restaurant down for months. It returned in the fall, but sputtered along, encountering major problems with the neighbors. It didn’t make it to 2010.
Here is the last menu at The Bistro, one that captures well the Greg Picolo years of deliciousness:
Steamed mussels with pommes frites.
Frog leg grillades.
Sweetbreads fritters with portobello mushrooms.
Seared foie gras with lavender pain perdu.
Pear, onion, and endive salad with Roquefort.
Seared sea scallops with gnocchi milanese.
Roast chicken with andouille and Lyonnaise potatoes.
Panneed lamb chops with blueberries.
Filet mignon with blue cheese fries.
The Bistro will probably never return–but it’s possible. It was so beloved by its fans that they can’t seem to imagine a world without the Bistro. Chef Greg is currently running the kitchen at Redemption, which has reduced its clientele to private parties only. I’ll bet he’d go for a revival.