It’s a new restaurant downtown (yay!) in a historic building (yay!) from a Birmingham-born, culinary-school-educated chef (yay!) with a that’s only open for lunch and during the week (boo!) and has a weird confusion of a “French” menu that includes classics like quiche Lorraine as well as burgers and gumbo (boo!).
I stopped by for lunch last week (the restaurant’s second in business), and I’m glad to say the food is better than expected! The place is similar in feel to Chez Fon Fon and Chez Lulu but with lower prices than the former and larger portions than the latter.
The food is mostly French, though there’s gumbo on the menu and they were playing New Orleans jazz, so maybe they’re going for a little Creole influence too. And for some strange reason, they have shrimp and grits available as an appetizer. I understand you’re in the South, but if you’re going to be a French restaurant, be a French restaurant.
The specialty of the house seems to be steak frites—you can’t go wrong with meat and fries. It’s a pretty good portion of flatiron steak, with two options of sauce: horseradish cream or chausseur (a mushroom, tomato and tarragon combo). I ordered mine medium, and it came out exactly right, paired with a simple salad. And those fries are excellent: skinny and super-crunchy, and they stay that way even after they cool off. The whole deal is $12, a bit steep for an everyday lunch but a very good price for what you get.
One of my dining companions ordered the quiche Lorraine and got a massive portion of well-made quiche—the crust wasn’t soggy, it was cooked through nicely, and it contained all the correct Lorraine ingredients. Nothing life-changing about this dish, but a solid one all around.
I also got to sample the crawfish and leek crepes (pictured above), which are rich, creamy, and indulgent, maybe even too much so for lunch. The side of rice and green beans, on the other hand, was just kinda sad. I’m not sure whose idea it was to pair starchy rice with starchy crepes, but someone in the kitchen should know better.
And that leads to my biggest criticism. In the News article, the chef/owner claims that “the menu changes daily.” If that’s the case, I would have expected to see at least the barest nod to seasonal produce. I have no problem with seeing the same basic entrees every day, but there was nary a mention of butternut squash or satsumas or any of the delicious winter items there could have been. If they’re putting cherry tomatoes on their salads and serving green beans in December, I find it hard to believe that the menu is really going to change much.
If and when Bistro Two Eighteen starts to stay open for dinner (which the owner claims it will soon), I think the menu will start to make a little more sense. An $18 boeuf bourguignon sounds absolutely wonderful, but I can’t see ordering it at lunchtime. Perhaps when there are separate afternoon and evening menus, there’ll be a little more of that changing-every-day they promised.
As for decor, the place has it half-right. One side wall is the original 19th-century brick, accented with some subtle light fixtures. Simple, elegant, appropriate for the location—perfect. The other side is this weird half-wall that doesn’t go all the way to the ceiling, giving a bit of an impression of the cubicles most of the downtown-worker clientele are trying to escape by coming here. I’m sure there was a reason that half-wall is needed, but I’m not a fan.
Overall, I recommend Bistro Two Eighteen wholeheartedly. I’d love to refer you to the restaurant’s website for more information, but as is typical in this town, the establishment has failed mightily at technology. The website listed on its Facebook page is a horrendous Register.com placeholder. Bistro Two Eighteen, you’ve been open for nearly a month—put something up on your damn URL! Even if it’s nothing more than a logo with your address, phone number and hours, you will have succeeded. (If anybody from the restaurant is reading this, I’m happy to be your web consultant and set you up a simple, easy-to-maintain WordPress page. Just email me.)
So, in the interest of keeping Birmingham food lovers informed and new businesses in business, here goes: Bistro Two Eighteen is located at 218 20th St. N, Birmingham, AL 35203. Its phone number is 205-983-7999. It is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.