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  11 December 2017  |  Vol: 4 facebooktwitterrss  
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Shark in the Water at John Bozeman's Bistro

Neon sign at John Bozeman's Bistro

This is the story of my return to Main Street. It’d been months since I’d done a review downtown, and we were deep in winter the last time I wrote up one of the dining establishments of high repute.

It wasn’t geography or mathematical probability that led me back. I wasn’t here on a hunch, either; I was responding to a tip from, hmmm, let’s just say a “concerned citizen,” one who might be familiar with the approximate dimensions of my bedroom.

Ever since a tragic explosion in ’09 leveled the 200 block of East Main and the town’s finest upscale restaurant, we’ve seen no clear hero emerge from a flotilla of second-bests. (I hear your “but-buts”—but nothing.) So when I heard that the service at John Bozeman’s Bistro was going under faster than the U.S.S. Indianapolis—"Vessel went down in 12 minutes"—I dove in.

I have to confess, this was no rescue mission. The Bistro and I never really hit it off; there were no warm, fuzzy feelings. To be honest, one could summarize my demeanor when I opened the front door as “shark on patrol.”

Enter Alex, the host. Fair-haired, good height, nice build, but could maybe use a few weeks with Miss Manners to polish those people-skills. His first question to me upon arriving amidst a midday squall, “What can I do for you?”

It was a smidge before noon on a weekday, patrons had already filled up several booths for power lunches and get-togethers, and while I wasn’t dolled up for a night on the town—it was December in Montana—I wasn’t looking for a paper bag of kitchen scraps, either. I wanted a table. "The thing about a shark... she's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes…"

I got my table, a high-top near the bar in the back of the room, where I sat with cold in my fingertips and damage on my mind.

The next character to swim over was Jess the waitress—professional, knowledgeable, and friendly. In thirty seconds, her sparkling introduction soothed my sharp pretense. Jess made me feel welcome. Jess was warm.

Waiting for my drink, I found grounds for a true compliment. John Bozeman’s Bistro is immaculate. In the historic core of town, the eateries range in condition from “grimy” to “lax” to “boyfriend-clean” to “clean, actually” to “looks-like-new-clean.” I can think of only one in the latter category. Whoever is charged with facility oversight at the Bistro is the great white of taskmasters, one that I’d be terrified to show my closet. Case in point: the booths are original, dating back to before the Second World War, and they look like sea otters—perfect, big and brown, and eager to cuddle.

Yes, the food. Occasionally, I get a letter from a reader peeved that I take too long getting to the food. When will they and local restauranteurs accept that much of the dining experience is set before the first round of drinks arrive? Food columnist with The New York Times since 1983, Marian Burros said, “Today's restaurant is theater on a grand scale.”

The menu overwhelms. It’s like the first sight of ocean for a kid from Omaha, all that endless volume. Burgers, sandwiches, appetizers, soups, wraps, bowls, salads—well, the salads start around $12, so they’re somewhat easy to dispatch.

The seasonal offerings, however, are not so fallible. These aren’t yesterday’s-overstock-is-today’s-soup-stock specials. Nope, they’re crafty selections derived from timely produce and calendar-relevant inclinations.  This week's "Superfood" at the Bistro had inviting names like Edible Ornaments, Coconut Christmas, and the tempting Caprese Wreath.

Yet, I sacrificed. For you, Dear Reader, I chose a permanent member of the menu so that, on your own visit, you would have access to the same offerings as I described.  (Not that I went completely fins-up; I ordered “the Perfect Lunch,” one of those DIY combinations of soup, salad, and half a sandwich or wrap.)

The day’s soup was lentil… with some other ingredients I tuned out. As I reluctantly opted for the French onion, I sensed the rows of rip-and-slash shark teeth emerging again. French onion soup is like salt to the sea, every beach has it and it usually tastes, well, too salty.

The soup was surprisingly good. No—the soup was fantastic. It took major self-control to restrain from scraping the baked cheese off the cup. (A word about that cup, however: this country’s notion of a cup of soup has gone from a proud chalice to a garage-sale teacup, and the Bistro offering is no exception.)

Those three ounces of soup saved by the Bistro provided me ample time to critique the furnishings before my entrée arrived. The problem is not quality—it’s clatter. The back of the menu informs of the origins for several mainstays, and it reads like a Rick Steves travelogue: tile floor from Florence, Italy, African timber felled for the booths, a massive painting from Three Forks, bar top from Finland, stools from New Jersey… the cumulative effect is one striped barber’s pole and a jackalope away from Bennigan’s. Far more expensive? Surely. Surgery-clean? Proudly so. But the décor was as dizzying as a schizophrenic plaid.

Jess, the CJ Parker of waitresses, then delivered a salad accompanied by a sesame ginger-vinaigrette that was so good my manners were again called to duty. I wanted to, direly so, but trust me, I did not lick the ramekin. I used my spoon.

And the main course? These days I’m increasingly GF (and the Bistro’s menu is gluten-free supportive, to say the least), so I went with the New Delhi wrap. Three ingredients bring this lovely dish to ribbon-worthy status, the spring-like soba noodles, the roasted chicken (that I trust are conscientiously sourced), and the savory sweet chili sauce.

With much respect for Jess, a co-save credit for the day is certainly due the kitchen. Bravo, Mitch Buchannons of cuisine, bravo.

While I’ve been informed that the New Delhi is not the lunch menu’s best—there are several sailors vying for that helm—but the Bistro comes at an admiral's price. As I mentioned before, the surrounding conversations reminded me of urban ports-of-call, marked by ego-dipped gents and ladies of means. But what John Bozeman’s Bistro has facilitated is a lavish respite on the woolly seas. And though I entered as the predator, I exited with delight warming my cheeks. -TBM

Beverly Ridge is the Bozeman area's first regularly featured restaurant reviewer.  A native of the valley and a veteran of the food service industry, she's a virtuoso on all things epicurean.  She's also made it a personal mission to protect Montana diners from the fleecing imposters, the lazy sourpusses, and the just plain rotten. Check out her review "Cafe Francais des Arts."

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