Thursday, September 27, 2007

Bistro-R: the most BANG for your Entertainment coupon buck

What the heck is a "bistro" anyway? Guess that question shows how little I know (or care) about fine dining. Nonetheless, after five minutes of sitting with my wife in this little high-end Glen Allen strip-mall restaurant, I knew I was in a bistro. Expensive food, relaxed service, and an unassuming setting. Okay, they got the price thing wrong, but what do you expect in the far West End?

Let's cut to the chase. The Entertainment coupon book expires at the end of October, so it's time to get to work using up the coupons that will get us outta the house, into some new experiences, and shave a little off the bill at the same time. Of all of the nicer restaurants in the section that has you bust our the Entertainment "gold card" Bistro R is the one that we were most intrigued about. My early blog posts demonstrate that some of the others eateries that section (like Cabo's - Richmond another "bistro") are merely traps where crap is served up as refined cuisine to people who don't care to know the difference and are happy to part with their money. Would Bistro-R be worth it? Would the coupon equal a bargain feast?

My wife is 12-weeks pregnant, and we wanted to celebrate the latest problem-free ultrasound (let this little aside serve as my public announcement, because I've been warned against turning this into a baby blog). We both hoped that this night's dining experience wouldn't wind up costing us more in anguish than the $16-off coupon would save us. Since we weren't drinking, this would be a great opportunity to have a minimalist meal that ends with a minimalist bill.

First off, the offer says (like all Entertainment book offers) "buy one entree and get one entree of equal or lesser value for free." In this case, the coupon is worth up to $16. However, there were no entrees for $16 or less. They range from $17-29, with about 6-7 pastas and the same number of meat/fish dishes. Whatever. I'm not allowed to talk about the prices on the menu while in a restaurant, because I tend to project my indignation around the room in the hopes of starting a movement for economic justice among the other dinners. Not exactly date-appropriate behavior.

Karen decided on a cup of crab bisque, which was super rich and flavorful and she let me eat half of it so she wouldn't spoil her appetite. I started with the salad of the day, consisting of arugula, yellow grape tomatoes, smoked trout and pieces of provolone. This salad rocked, although small. The greens were peppery, fresh, and pretty. And the fish was indeed smoky and not dried out like some other smoked fishes I've had. My only complaint was the choice of cheese - too soft and mellow to rival the other ingredients. Parmigiano Reggiano would have been a better choice (for almost any occasion according to prevalent food tv/mags that I look at).

For our entrees, we both decided to order what we wanted from the middle price range of the menu instead of the cheapest dishes (which would have maximized our coupon value). What the heck, you only have your first baby once. Time to chow down!

Karen got a chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto and marscapone cheese, served with some fancy mashed potatoes and sage butter sauce. She raved about it, at first. Tender, saucy, and savory. But with each bite, she grew less fond of it - calling it quits a third of the way through (not uncommon considering her current finickiness). The flavors were really strong. A little sage, my friends, goes a long way. In retrospect, the same level-pushing was at play with the slightly over-salted soup. And she didn't find the mascarpone in that chicken, because it had liquefied and run into the sauce.

Exhibit B: The cajun creme seafood penne pasta was enormous and vibrantly red. There were large and perfectly cooked scallops and shrimp (three apiece) and crab meat was distributed throughout the sauce. The cajun seasoning was delicious, but completely overpowering - as if a gigantic chunk of New Orleans "essence" had tumbled into the pot when a couple teaspoons were probably called for. A professional fire-breather , however, would probably have taken the cajun calamity in stride. Nonetheless, the heavy cream and saltiness was hard to take issue with. Sure, I was full after six bites, but I got to have it for lunch and dinner today, so I'm not really complaining.

Overall, I suppose I would recommend Bistro-R for its quality ingredients and friendly service (which I didn't go into here). If you like bold flavors, then this place is doubly for you. The food looks and tastes expensive, but you might not actually get your money's worth until you've eaten your entrees as leftovers in the following days.

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Sometimes I wonder if the restaurants who advertise in the Entertainment book actually want you to show up with coupon in hand. I'm assuming that they paid in order to be featured in there to begin with. Then they have to give a dish away for free. Are there kick-backs for each coupon used? How does it work?

When I was at Bistro R, nearly everyone was using their Entertainment cards. I heard the server punching holes in the plastic repeatedly. It's not a stretch to think that maybe they build the free dish into the price of their entrees. In fact, the prices seemed to reflect that. But then again, I'm a cheapskate and I tend to be suspicious of everybody's financial motives. Part of me really believes that the eateries that advertise in Entertainment by offering buy-one get-one FREE deals are running some kind of game on me. Am I paranoid and/or are they really after me?

6 comments:

  1. Hi Jason:

    Thank you for your thoughful and fair minded post on my restaurant, Bistro R. As you and your wife noticed, my chef and I are both "bold flavor" guys, which is obviously reflected in the food. It is expensive to do business in the far West End, where rents are sky-high, so we must price accordingly to survive, as we are not a high volumn operation. Therefore we do try to give our guests the most "bang" for their buck.

    I noticed that you had a few questions regarding the Entertainment Card, so I thought I would try to explain how it works. The Entertainment Card is actually a small part of my total business, although we see increased traffic in the fall when the card is about to expire. I pay no fee to be featured in the book, although I understand that new entrants do pay something. The book has a set discount structure for various types of restaurants - mine happens to be $16.00. There are no "kickbacks". The Entertainment Book discount plays no part whatsoever in our pricing structure: the menu prices reflect the costs of doing business in this particular location, as well as the quality of the ingredients I choose to serve. Restaurants have a set percentage food cost that must be adhered to in order to cover overhead. Deviations from that percentage serve as good indicators of waste, theft, and other problems.

    In answer to your question, I do want folks to visit with their coupon. The Entertainment Book is a marketing tool, pure and simple. The food that I give away is a marketing cost. I use the Book to expose the Bistro to folks who would not normally know about it, to give them an incentive to visit, and then hopefully to gain a regular patron who spreads the word. If, once and a while, the Bistro is featured on an interesting blog such as yours, so much for the better!

    Regards,

    Mike Hinerman
    Owner
    Bistro R

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  2. Jason,

    I stumbled across your blog several months ago, and after reading for some time I feel compelled to write in and comment to you. I eat in restaurants all across Richmond and the world-- dive bars, fine dining, bistros, brasseries, enotecas, and the vast number of places that fall somewhere in between. I'd like to offer a gentle suggestion from someone who enjoys food and the act of eating a wonderful meal in a restaurant: lighten up. Food, whatever the price, is meant to be joyful, nourishing to the stomach and spirit, and a celebration of culture and ideas. Every restaurant review that I've read from you seems to come from a place of suspicion, or that the idea that someone is trying to pull one over on you or judge you. I understand that when you go out to dinner, you want your food to be worth the price you're paying, but I think that you would enjoy your food a lot more if you committed to enjoying the entire experience and just let go. Life (and dinner) are too short to project such an air of anger and insecurity to the world around you.

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  3. Anna,
    It's good to know that this blog is read by other food lovers. It's too bad that my stories come across to you as "angry and insecure." The previous post, from the owner of the restaurant I wrote about, called this particular post "thoughtful and fairminded." In fact, most of my food pieces of late have been raves (see Taco Truck, Viva Falafel Tacqueria del Sol, and of course the Mexico honeymoon). Nonetheless, these are personal opinion pieces, and they reflect the tidbits that I am compelled to write about. Most of the time, it my questions that I want to share as opposed to my satisfaction at the privilage of paying for and eating a meal. Because blogs enable feedback, I often include requests for corrections and rebuttals to any concerns that I raise. Consumers need to communicate and compare notes to ensure that we spend more time enjoying food than regretting it. It's a hobby of mine to write about these things, and my critical point of view is a big part of this blog's concept and personality. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Thanks for the feedback.

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  5. Working with Jason and eating lunch with him weekly, we often discuss food seriously. Jason is anything but a suspicious fellow, but he does want value for his money, as we all do. There's no more joy at lunch than discussing all things foodie with Jason, or to sample his adventurous dishes, and to hear about his restaurant outings.

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