Back Street Bistro
Back Street Bistro
11 Town Hall Place, Brunswick, (207) 725-4060.
Open from 5 p.m. to close on Wed. through Mon.
Reservations and all major credit cards accepted.
The Back Street Bistro is precisely that: small, unassuming, located down a little tangent of a road just off Brunswick’s Maine Street. Even then, it’s offset from cars and the occasional fire truck (thanks to the neighboring firehouse) by a tiny parking lot. And even then, the entrance to the actual restaurant sits under an awning and a porch — which should be populated by diners by sometime in mid-August, when the last of the snow melts. Duck under the porch, and you’re there. Oops, not quite, there’s a small, undecorated airlock/hallway that, finally, leads into the dining area. All of this takes no more than about 30 feet and 10 seconds to traverse, but by the time you’re seated, you feel far away from any type of thoroughfare.
Lucky for all of us, tucked away is a nice place to be on a very chilly Valentine’s Day. The low-hanging and aged exposed beams of the dining room are warmed by the centerpiece of the restaurant: a roaring, cast-iron wood stove surrounded by a small railing so, assumedly, small German children aren’t pushed in by witches. As I stood there warming my hands, servers whizzed by me with that rushed server walking-fast-but-trying-not-to-look-like-I’m-walking-fast gait, each one pleasantly saying, "The hostess will be right with you!" When we finally spotted the hostess, she smiled and said, "I’ll be right with you!" Those servers were right!
When you choose to dine at a small, newish bistro on Valentine’s Day, you have to expect a slightly more frenetic dance from the front of the house than you would on a normal Monday. We were led to a lofty second floor seating area — the kitchen and main bar sit on half-levels, suspended just above the diners in their own personal limbo — to, at first, a perfectly nice table and then, after many apologies, another perfectly nice table right next to it.
We were presented with two menus that night: the standard, static menu, and a Valentine’s Day special menu with two options each of appetizers, entrees, and desserts for a per-couple price. For reviewing purposes, we went static.
The offerings at the Back Street Bistro are on par with what one might expect in a Maine bistro in winter. Lots of cockle-warming plates lashed with brandies, red wines, legumes, creams, and the like. As we arrived, the kitchen had just run out of our first choice, the Crispy Duck Pancake and Apple Salad, so we rejoined with selections of the soup of the day — Cream of Mushroom with Truffle Oil — and Grilled Flat Bread and Warm Brie Cheese. The soup was right on if not a little thin, and served with the same flatbread wedges that came with our second choice. It’s hard not to love warmed, melty Brie and a whole roasted head of garlic for spreading, and the accompanying candied pecans and dried apricots served as appropriate palate cleansers; the small salad on the side, however, was dressed with a zig-zag of indistinguishable dressing from a squirt bottle, and served little flavor purpose on the plate.
As the ice on the windows dictated our orders to us, we repeated them back to our server: Long Braised Lamb Shank, and Two Textured Maine Farmed Venison. It was a slow-cooked meat night, and lamb shanks and venison osso buco are card-carrying members of the cold-night food Hall of Fame. Look at your forearm: If you were a meat animal — and who says we aren’t? — your shank would run from your wrist to just below your elbow, and the cut used for osso buco is the two-to-three inch stretch in the middle (osso buco literally means "bone with a hole," and is traditionally a Milanese dish made with veal braised in white wine, tomatoes, and onions, but other animals have been substituted successfully).
Both of Back Street’s preparations were tender, but more of the braising liquids should have been served with the meat to keep it from ending up unnecessarily dry. The other venison preparation on the plate was a slightly tough, but well seasoned and tasty, grilled flank steak. The highlight of the entrees was the white bean and bacon ragout, a souped-up version of baked beans.
Unfortunately, we forgot to order vegetables. This was due to the curious tendency of some restaurants to offer side dishes at an extra cost, and — even odder — the Back Street Bistro’s idea of serving the starch with the meal, but offering veggies as a separate item. We weren’t asked if we wanted vegetables; our dishes came without them. Shame on me for not perusing the menu carefully enough - I’ll admit that. Shame on them for trying to squeeze an extra $1.50 out of patrons who are already paying a decent price for the meal? Yep.
The desserts were as pleasant as lemon meringue tarts, chocolate cake, and orange crème brulee could have been expected to be, and the same can be said for the Back Street Bistro in general. The happy couples around us were clearly enjoying their meals, feeding each other and pouring wine, all in all signs that cozy and comfortable have been achieved with some degree of success. But it was Valentine’s Day in front of a roaring fire, after all. It would be interesting to see what happens next week.
Andy King can be reached at email@example.com