With American bistros popping up everywhere nowadays, there’s something grounding about the certainty of the French original, and something delicious about digging around its roots with a fork. Some French bistros predate even Bristol’s founding and with all this weight of history, it’s much harder to pay homage. That said, Bristol’s Le Central pulls it off. Staring across at a wedding cake colonial house framed by the giant trees standing proud on Hope Street, you won’t think you’re at the Left Bank, but your taste buds may be transported. Perhaps that’s why I overheard a lot of talk about travel in bubbling lunch conversation, and also even more so, people seemed to be happy right where they were.
Le Central’s exterior certainly looks the part, with its tall row of windows across the entire front, understated signage, and the Tricolore flag at the entrance. Inside there’s a blue bar and black and white tables, chair backs, and floor. You can’t help but notice a huge and absorbing painting on the far wall, of a chair, dog and boy all on wheels. Their website provides its magical realist painter, Inez Storer and apologizes: “We don’t know who the guy in the chair is.”
My wife had a Nicoise Salad ($14), a deceptively simple dish. Like a lot of bistro food, the aim of this dish is an understated mastery; to make something far more than its humble parts. My wife got a magnificent and thick chunk of seared tuna, rare on the interior, along with blanched string beans – plentiful, spring green and crisp – intermingled with arugula, and contrasted nicely with roasted red pepper. With clean and tender halved fingerlings on the side, all of it glistened with a delicate sheen of a gentle olive tapenade. Every part was distinct, nothing was insistent, and everything was perfect.
I also had a simple French classic, one even more basic, and far more likely to be thoroughly ruined in a French high school class near you. I speak of the Croque Monsieur ($13), a not-so-fast fast food. The French equivalent of grilled cheese (sacré bleu!), it’s gooey gruyere between liberally butter browned pieces of pain de mie white bread, combined with country ham and topped with an egg. The simple thought here to shave the ham up eliminated the dreaded slidey sandwich pitfall, reducing any friction in the movement of morsel to mouth. Alongside were some great long herbed shoestring frites. This is what’s great about the French bistro, it’s meant to be for the everyday as much as, or even more than, for the sophisticated.
When you’ve already had butter, cheese, ham and fries, you may as well order a couple of desserts, because you’re having that sort of day. We scooped up some Chocolate Salted Caramel Ice Cream ($3) as well as a Lemon Ricotta Crepe ($6.50). The ice cream had great flavor and the crepe was another expertly achieved classic. A creamy lemon ricotta filling was encapsulated in the delicate flowing folds of crepe, and all about it on the plate were berries, citrus and fruit to give texture and a zap of tartness. Portion sizes for everything were satisfying but not absurd, leaving no regret after an indulgent lunch.
483 Hope Street, Bristol