Among the cluster of freshly bricked buildings at the five-way intersection of Hill Road and 36th Street hides a bistro. It's hardly the most noticeable facet of the compound and had you wandered into the main event—the garden center—without first knowing about the dining area planted in the west wing, its discovery could be a very pleasant surprise. As a destination, however, 36th Street Bistro feels less like a sincere effort than it does an item checked off on a developer's to-do list.
The high white ceiling soars above a dozen or so dark, wooden tables with cut glass lamps hanging in the space between. On three sides of the cafe, the outdoors seeps in on the invitation extended by windows stretched tall and wide. What looks like it could have once been an antique bar serves as a prop next to the deli case and in front of the barista apparatus. As a whole, the bright, open, echoey space filled with dark woods and carefully spaced shrubbery creates an effect of greenhouse meets museum cafe, and it's just shy of pulling off that image without flinching.
What the atmosphere needs, ironically, is more greenery. The bistro's location in a nursery isn't lost on its diners, and given carte blanche to do it my way, I'd shuttle the teetering stacks of extra chairs out of sight, fold proper linen on the tables, and then march in hundreds of green and flowery things.
A big fat metaphorical "ditto" on the food.
The gastronomical philosophy is itself a bit of a checklist: Serious bent on healthy? Check. Northwest palate? Check. A push for local produce, wine specials (including half-priced bottles), weekend brunch ... The bistro earns points for concept, but misses the mark in execution.
Salmon is disappointingly farm-raised ($19.95) and a peck of potatoes absconds with all the sodium in a smoked salmon chowder. A medley of pan-seared lima beans, corn and bell peppers shows off decent flavor but is ultimately too dry to win approval. The evening's special of highlands beef (raised off Cartwright Road) over penne with a Guinness demi-glaze ($18.99), however, passes muster even if the garnishing of rubbery green beans is entirely unpalatable. Tart green apples slipped into a grilled ham and cheddar sandwich ($7.95) prove some moxie on the chef's part, as does the heavily herbed French onion soup and a slice of dark-as-coal three-layer chocolate cake ($3.95), or, as one server described it: a vulgarity on a plate.
The details, however, seem to matter not. As these reviews go to press, a changing of the guard will take place with the cold-weather menu taking leave to allow for the installation of a spring/summer menu. Perhaps the new warm-weather regime will transform the patio from austere stone into a garden oasis and force some of that greenery into those giant cafe windows.
But for now, it looks like the outcome could go either way. Like the newly minted corner of real estate on which the bistro sits, things have the definite feel of hanging in the balance. Look out the windows and the view is mud and construction with promise. The food follows that lead, complete with promise. With a sincere focus on raising the bar qualitatively to match the price point, the bistro could tip itself into a reputation as a North End scene. Or, instead, it could putter along as it is now: a place where a $20 dinner of salmon acts more like an $8 lunch special.
—Rachael Daigle was caught wild and tossed back.
On a crisp Easter Sunday afternoon, peppered with flowery dresses and bubbling mimosa glasses, the 36th Street Bistro patio was a textbook homage to spring. Metal frogs burped alternating rivulets of water into a splashing fountain while couples talked closely, forking shimmering roasted potatoes and grilled asparagus stalks into their mouths. A little girl in patent leather shoes spun in circles as her parents watched nearby. If it weren't for the dormant construction equipment, mounds of sand and empty "For Lease" storefronts, the 36th Street Garden Center mixed-use development might be confused for a quaint villa.
At the intersection of 36th Street and Hill Road, the bistro is attached to an airy upscale gardening store filled with more tchotchkes than plants. Wicker lawn furniture congregates with tin cabbage-shaped watering cans and fancy compost buckets with scent-eliminating filters. It is to garden-obsessed North End dwellers what Ikea is to college students. Fortunately, the food is more than just an afterthought.
While brunch is one of my favorite guilty indulgences—full of day drinking, rich buttery sauces and bready, starchy sides—the 36th Street Bistro found a way to church up an already awesome thing. Instead of biscuits or hashbrowns, they offered fresh-grilled asparagus, haricots verts and spinach as side options. My brunch date and I laid to rest a vegetable frittata and salmon benedict, massacring every last drop of the accompanying tarragon-flecked bearnaise and hollandaise sauces. The snap of thin green beans and crunchy asparagus was a welcome palate refresher between chomps of yolk-covered moist salmon steak and rich eggy tart. We were heartbroken to find out both items were from a one-day-only Easter menu.
Determined to get a taste of grub more frequently available, I set off on a rather annoying weeklong dinner quest. Though the restaurant is still technically engaged in a six-month soft opening, word has gotten out. All four times I've visited, there were butts in almost every seat. Oddly, there wasn't sufficient service staff to handle the volume of clamoring patrons. On one foiled dinner attempt, there was only one frantic server for the entirely full restaurant. In a time-crunch, my date and I decided to book it. Another evening, we found an open table, but were soon informed that we'd arrived five minutes after the last dinner seating. When we had called to make sure the restaurant was indeed open until 9 p.m., they failed to mention that the last seating is unbendingly set at 8:30 p.m.
Learning from my previous two experiences, I made a reservation for an early Friday evening dinner. The bistro was again packed and the same swamped server was again swamped. Luckily, the calm executive chef took us to our table and quickly brought out a half-priced happy hour bottle of the citrusy, slightly effervescent Twin Vines Vinho Verde ($12.50, 5-7 p.m.). The dinner menu was charmingly simple, with around 10 main course options and no appetizers. Each entree came with a fresh watercress salad—so fresh the kitchen lops off the roots prior to serving it. Two of us went with the ginger-orange glazed salmon with curried basmati rice ($19.95) and the other ordered the bistro filet ($18.95) with pesto mashed potatoes. Both dishes came with a well-spiced, though slightly dry, southwest veggie potpourri comprised of grilled lima beans, corn and red and green bell peppers. The meats were moist and expertly cooked without being overshadowed by their accompanying sauces.
Though the portions were small compared to the prices, we each finished our dishes and sighed with pleasant, not-too-full-bellied exhales. As we puttered around the garden center, stopping to check out loafer-shaped fern holders, we agreed that the 36th Street Bistro should probably hire some more staff. With a new summer menu debuting April 24, droves of plant- and patio-loving North Enders will surely be pedaling their Schwinns out for half-priced bottles of wine and fresh, well-cooked fare.
—Tara Morgan spins in circles for half-priced wine specials.