Carla Meyer

Dining review: Changes ahead at Sacramento’s Bistro Michel, and none too soon

By Blair Anthony Robertson

brobertson@sacbee.com

At Bistro Michel, the terrific mussels with white wine, garlic and fennel are a great option at lunch and are available as one of four courses at dinner.
At Bistro Michel, the terrific mussels with white wine, garlic and fennel are a great option at lunch and are available as one of four courses at dinner. Bee staff

For years, I’ve had a soft spot for Bistro Michel, the unassuming, mildly charming spot on 14th Street that has gone about its business serving a very respectable sampling of casual French cooking.

At its best, it felt like a sliver of Paris here in California’s capital. I can recall sitting at one of the outdoor tables lining the midtown sidewalk, drinking a glass of wine, enjoying simple French food done well and getting lost in the calm, slightly quirky spirit of the place.

But that was then.

My recent visits to this all-but-empty, all-too-flawed restaurant have made me reconsider.

It’s not so much about the food, which remains mostly good, though it continues to rely on a few old standby dishes. The kitchen has not shown much growth or innovation in recent years. Turns out, the chef whose work I admired so much, Scott McNamara, has moved on, and there is a slight but noticeable difference in the overall cooking. Gone, too, is co-owner Richard Macias, the bookish, soulful character who gave the restaurant a low-key panache.

Still, few bowls of mussels can compare to those at Bistro Michel. The white wine broth is delectable, simmered as it is with fresh mussels, along with diced celery, onion, garlic and fennel. The steak frites, featuring a 10-ounce flat iron cut of beef, is still worth ordering, even if the French fries are not quite as impressive as they once were (on one recent occasion, they were served nearly cold).

And the sandwiches are delicious, including an egg sandwich with Bibb lettuce, aioli and Dijon mustard on focaccia, and ham with Gruyere and Dijon on a baguette. Brunch is simple and inviting. On a recent visit, I had the “country Benedict” – two nicely poached eggs with a spicy bechamel instead of a traditional hollandaise on an English muffin with a sausage patty.

But dinner? It simply doesn’t make sense from a price or logistics standpoint.

A while back, Bistro Michel decided to enact a prix fixe concept for its dinners. That means that anyone coming in after 5 p.m. would be required to get the entire four-course offering for $60 per person. I can’t imagine how anyone could think this would be a good idea.

Really, except for The Kitchen ($135 per person), which has a great local legacy and excels at customer service (dinners include an intermission of sushi and sashimi and all kinds of incredible extras), Bistro Michel is the only Sacramento restaurant I can think of that’s operating this way. What’s more, a prix fixe concept doesn’t fit well with the low-key French bistro fare.

Still, there’s enjoyment to be found in the four courses. The pan-seared escolar (a firm but tender white fish) with capers and browned butter and served with fingerling potatoes was cooked with finesse – an excellent seafood dish with subtle flavors. The steak and fries were fine but nothing great, mostly because I recall just how delicious those fries once were and how they elevated the dish to something special. They come with curried ketchup, a fun little Belgian twist that continues to be memorable. The escargots a la Bourguignonne (snails from Burgundy cooked in a parsley-garlic butter) were a tasty treat, with a nice tender-meets-chewy texture.

On another occasion, we ordered the seafood tower, which is not on the menu and costs $50 per person. It is a visual feast to be sure, with a large lobster served chilled on ice and skillfully pieced out, along with an assortment of mussels and shrimp. But an entirely chilled dinner exceeding $100 for two people? When you factor in wine and dessert, the price surpasses the pleasure.

At its best, a bistro is a place to kick back and feel at home. In the French countryside, that might mean being greeted by the owners. Maybe their young daughter is roaming around the joint with the family dog. The menu is written in chalk. The wine is unpretentious but exceptional. It’s charming and real and easy.

With the prix fixe dinner, Bistro Michel is losing touch with that idea. We tried eating this way on two occasions and found it impossible to reconcile the bill with the experience. What’s more, the restaurant is empty. There is but one server on duty. We could hear our forks clink against the plates. We felt the need to talk in our “library voices.” It was like being a kid on timeout – albeit a tasty one.

Put simply, the food was on point, but everything else was woefully out of whack.

It turns out, coupons – specifically Groupons – were partially responsible for the move to prix fixe. Owner-chef Alan Chan said that people were buying his Groupons, coming in and ordering mussels and a glass of wine and essentially getting the meal for free. That loss leader strategy “was ruining the restaurant,” Chan said. “I don’t mind telling you that it nearly bankrupted me.”

Lunch, it turns out, also makes the prix fixe dinner hard to swallow. The sandwiches, the cured salmon, a plate of the same mussels we had at dinner and the new spicy burger with fries (albeit cold ones) added up to about $45 for two. We liked the flavors and the touches of French flair, and we were pleased with the price. Given that, it made me wonder how anybody could be happy with the dinner.

Chan knows this and realizes he has to change. He said in 2015 he plans to scrap the Bistro Michel we have known. It will be a bistro, but not necessarily French. There will be small plates, plenty of variety and at prices in the $5 range, served dim sum style.

A restaurateur’s obligation is to make dining easy and accommodating. For now, I can recommend Bistro Michel for lunch and marginally for brunch. But dinner is simply not advisable. A revamping is in order. We look forward to the new concept and to trying Bistro Michel when the customer has more options – and maybe more fun.

Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.

Bistro Michel

1501 14th St.

Sacramento

(916) 346-4012

www.bistromichel.com

Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday to Friday. Dinner: 5-9 p.m Tuesday to Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Brunch: 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Beverage options: Full bar; selection of five red wines and three whites for dinner; wine pairings are $25.

Vegetarian friendly: Limited

Gluten-free options: Limited

Noise level: Quiet.

Ambiance: At dinner, the dining room is mostly empty and deadly dull.

Overall (out of 4 stars).

This is a reduction of one full star since our review in May 2011. While lunches are still a good bet for the downtown work crowd, the $60 fixed-price dinners are too limited and too expensive to be recommended. We’re told a change in concept is coming. That couldn’t happen soon enough.

Food 1/2

The mussels in white wine with garlic and fennel are still fantastic. The steak frites is pretty good but not as great as it once was. Sandwiches are tasty. The dinners are too casual and simple to work as a prix fixe menu.

Service

Professional, friendly and knowledgeable.

Value 1/2

This is the category that is holding back Bistro Michel. While the prix fixe menu was enacted in part to counter a failed Groupon strategy, its logistics and price point do not make sense. Dinners are not accessible enough. For $60, plus $25 for wine pairings, you’re liable to have a bitter aftertaste.

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