Bistro Steak Room
Westwego: 1098 Fourth Street.
People who dined in this highly improbable restaurant all talked about the same two dishes. Both of them were free. Fried parsley–“French popcorn”–was coated with a dusting of seasoned flour before going into the fryer. It came to the table in a coffee-filter-lined basket that also held “Bistro bread,” crescent-shaped pieces of French bread spread with a concoction that resembled a very herbal pizza sauce and a bit of Parmesan cheese, then baked.
Improbable, I said. The Bistro was on the old, superseded and (in spots) superseedy main route through the communities on the other side of the river from New Orleans. The Bistro’s entrance–marked by a small neon sign whose script said “Bistro”–was inside a casual eatery called the Riviera. With big windows and bright fluorescent lights, the Riviera fed truck drivers and other hard workers with the likes of poor boys or fried chicken.
Walking through the Bistro’s door revealed a radical change in atmosphere. Inside it was cool, dark, and romantic. The tables were set richly. Art hung on the walls. Stained-glass panels glowed here and there. Finding a first-class restaurant in such a place tickled one’s sense of the absurd enough to add something to the meal. Or even make you giggle.
The Bistro was the creation of the Bitoun brothers, Moroccan Sephardim named Jacques, Andre, Maurice, and Simon. All had substantial resumes. Andre in particular was well known in fine-dining circles, having worked both on the front door and in the kitchen at the Rib Room and Brennan’s.
Although the menu and style of the Bistro bore the unmistakable style of Andre Bitoun–the most talented chef among the brothers–for most of its history the Bistro was run by Maurice. He was the chef and host, and good at both jobs. He was always there, with a big smile under his big black mustache. He knew everybody, and since most of his customers came from Uptown (hard to believe now, but true) his currency spread. Simon, whose offbeat sense of humor added further entertainment to the meal, was the maitre d’ and lead waiter.
After the fried parsley and Bistro bread, you moved on to the bowtie pasta with crabmeat and cream sauce, the poached eggs with hollandaise over smoked salmon (“kosher eggs Benedict,” Maurice called it), or the baked oysters.
Steak was the restaurant’s specialty, and they handled it well, even in the absence of the most expensive beef. Maurice told me that the trick was to sear steaks in the pan on top of the stove, and then finish them in the oven. However it was done, the Bistro’s steaks were always bulging with juiciness. They made an assortment of sauces to go with the steaks; the best of them was the peppercorn-encrusted steak au poivre. They came out with what amounted to potatoes au gratin in the jacket.
Seafood here was also good. The list started with a fried seafood platter, lifted from the West End level by an excellent version of the brown, opaque, Arnaud’s-style meuniere sauce. Other specialties included veal Normande, very tender, served atop noodles in a great apple-brandy-flavored sauce. You finished dinner with the Bistro jubilee–cherries jubilee made in the kitchen instead of flamed in front of you. No loss of flavor.
The Bistro was most popular in the 1970s. It declined along with all the other restaurants on the West Bank after the oil bust in the early 1980s. At the same time, the new wave of Mr. B’s-style gourmet cafes began opening throughout Uptown, siphoning away many of the Bistro’s regular customers.
After the Bistro closed in 1988, vestiges of its style cropped up now and then, when Andre, Maurice, and Simon all opened other restaurants here and there. Andre and Maurice joined their big brother Jacques in the Big Kitchen In The Sky in the 1990s. Simon is still alive, but hobbled and retired. In their prime, these men built one of the most distinctive, most memorable, and most surprising restaurants ever to operate in New Orleans.
This is one of 122 reviews of restaurants no longer on the scene but remembered fondly by local diners in The Lost Restaurants Of New Orleans, just published by Pelican. It’s available in bookstores all around town. I wrote most of the book and Peggy Scott Laborde gathered the great graphics, including old menus, photos, matchbook covers, etc.