We almost missed Bistro 7 as we drove down 3rd Street. Only a tiny sign on one of the dimly lit windows of the restaurant signified we had found our destination. I wasn't suprised Bistro 7 was a tad inconspicuous; I'd only just read about it the day before thanks to a recent Philadelphia Weekly review. The reviewer was taken aback, in a good way, by the staff's urbanity and the impressive food preparation. Any restaurant that's tagged the "Jackie O. of the Philadelphia BYOB scene" is well-worth a try.
Bistro 7 was almost at capacity the Friday we went, but we had reservations and seating was snappy. Of the two available, I chose the table closest to the entrance because the lighting was much brighter than the romantic glimmer at the rest of the tables (better for picture taking). After a few staff members rotated around, one of them cooly took our drink order. I was happy to see offerings such as Virgil's Root Beer and Orangina for those not wanting alcohol but still looking for something more interesting than Sprite or water. The courtesy of our lax waitress was more genuine than forced, a rare characteristic in in restaurants, and one that makes dining even more comfortable and enjoyable.
The appetizers were all appealing, ranging from a beet and fennel terrine to a gripping potato gnocchi dish, but I was in the mood for soup, and dammit, I was gonna get it. The closest thing Bistro 7 had was a Prince Edward Island Mussels Soup in a roasted tomato-garlic broth. Although I've never been a fan of any bivavles - too unctuous - I'm usually willing to fork into a few mussels. But when the spoon hit the plate, this dish just wasn't good enough to make me the mussel lover my Dad professes himself to be. The broth was very smooth, but a large dollop of creamy butter nearly overwhelmed it. I tried my best to avoid it. I must note that the spiciness added from little bits of chorizo was a welcome taste.
The entrees were equally enticing as the appetizers, but nothing restaurant-goers familiar with BYOBs and hip chefs wouldn't recognize: Wild Striped Bass, Day Boat Scallops, Beef Ribeye. Keeping attuned to the local food movement sweeping over many of the city's better restaurants and cafes, the meat-containing items on the menu indicated the purveyor, e.g., Stoltzfus (the duck) and Wolfe Neck Farm (the ribeye).
I opted for the Buttermilk-Fried Limestone Springs Boneless Rainbow Trout (that's a mouthful of appeal). I imagined that fried trout would be the apotheosis of all those fried fish sticks I'd never, ever order. I must say, the trout matched my lofty expectations. The crust around the fish was unbelievably well-textured and just held on until the first chew. The buttermilk gave them a great initial taste that gave way to the delicious and tender rainbow trout. But if only the secondary parts of the dish had any merit...
The accompanying black-eyed peas were abundant, but were merely filler next to the trout. The tomato, garlic, and kale mixed in with the peas were better, but notging great. For $19 dollars, I really can't snear too much at the sides, but I'd almost rather the chef left out the peas altogether.
One of my fellow diners ordered the Chinese Five-Spiced Peking Duck Breast. The Peking Duck was equal in flavor punch to Nan's version, but it won me over thanks to the small pop of the cuminy skin surrounding the duck. Very good. There was one downer to the dish: I saw my partner had little bits of chewed fat spotting her nearly-cleaned plate by the time she was finished.
The waitress read of the small but fitting selection of desserts, one of which was a cheese plate. From the three sweeter selections I chose the Coconut Jasmine Rice Pudding, which came with a healthy drizzling of caramel sauce. For some the coconut-caramel combination may be a bit much sugar intake, but I thought the flavor was very good, if not a bit too heavy on caramel. I was most impressed with the lumpy yet creamy pudding texture. Each bite was more refreshing than the last.
After savoring the last of my dessert, I observed that the Bistro was unoccupied -- to the maitre d's unnoticeable dismay, there was no late night turnover -- so I took this rare opportunity to chat with the chef du cuisine. Bistro 7's chef, we were informed, was not a product of culinary school, but rather one birthed from the bellies of kitchens around the region. His dishes well represented his less patrician origins; I mean that in a good way -- no useless garnishes or questionable cultural fussions.
The scruffy, stone-jawed chef leaned on the counter of his publicly visible plating station. We informed him that we enjoyed the meal. I told him how I thought my dish had a pleasing Southern theme, punctuated by the very fun and well-prepared buttermilk-fried rainbow trout. His uneven brows and askance glare told me he contended with my "Southern" labeling, but he agreed that he liked to base his dishes around "geographic regions." He continued, "So then, like, you don't have wasabi-soy mashed potatoes and those types of things. It makes it easier to create dishes." It sounded fair enough to me. I think any jaded restaurant critic, especially those who typically review classier restaurants (see NY Times), would appreciate his dedication to a geographic theme more than the casual dinner who loves to ooh-and-ahh at the fanciful and foreign.
The dining couplet and I left Bistro 7 thoroughly satisfied, but not so much by the food as by how comfortable we felt chatting away over the dishes. It certainly wasn't the pea-colored walls that made the experience a success -- actually the bare walls begged for some local artwork to fit the theme -- moreso it was the genuine congeniality of all staff that made the dinner well worth the trip, and the price. It's tough not like a place whose staff makes you feel like a regular.
Location: 7 N. Third St. (closed Monday)