Shrimp, scallops and chopped clams swimming in a creamy herb-flecked sauce are folded into a tender crepe and served with a side salad at O Bistro Francais. (Photo by Susan Ericson. Click to enlarge)
By SUSAN ERICSON
A big old barn of a building on Bridge Avenue in Red Bank is now home to the much anticipated French restaurant, O Bistro Francais.
Following the arrows along the side of the building to a door crowned by a French flag, PieHole finds a new entrance, an interior whipped up in cloud-like shades of white and dove-gray, and familiar faces. Traditional French fare from the kitchen of chef Marc Fontaine is all the enticement we need to slide into a booth and indulge.
Croque Monsieur blanketed in bechamel sauce and lightly browned at O Bistro. Below, the entrance is on the side of the building: just follow the arrows. (Photos by Susan Ericson. Click to enlarge)
Impossibly tiny, Fontaine’s first restaurant, Bienvenue, located on East Front Street, introduced us to traditional tastes of France. We fell for the authentic, rich sauces and romantic atmosphere, and then, after just three years, it closed in 2010.
Fontaine wasn’t throwing in the towel, though: he was looking for an opportunity to showcase his talents in a bigger venue, and found it here in a space that previously housed Puglia and, before that, Red Bank Pizza.
With general manager Frederic Chirol, charmingly known as Freddy, we toured all of the nooks and crannies of the restaurant. A brightly lit vestibule opens to a comfortably relaxed bistro with large booths and café tables. At one end of the room is a bar area that seats six. Up a short flight of rustic brick steps there’s plenty of room for larger groups. A private dining room big enough for a good-sized party and a romantic nook area round out this space.
The short lunch menu offers a soupe du jour; four lunch-style salads such as salade nicoise and a potato salad with ham and hard boiled eggs; a few sandwiches, including a burger; and a half-dozen riffs on a tarte flambee. The always inviting moules frites, ubiquitous to most French menus, also catch our eye.
But we’ve enjoyed those dishes by this chef before, so we opt for a classic French crepe ($16).
Combining shrimp, scallops, clams, bechamel, tarragon, dill and basil oil, this dish is a splendid example of Fontaine’s culinary experience. The oversized whole-wheat crepe stands up to the bursting volume of seafood. Big pieces of chopped scallop, briny clams and large whole shrimp bathe in sauce of cream and butter flavored by chopped fresh herbs. The dill stands out and lights up the dish.
A warm, crusty baguette roll came in handy toward the end of the meal. We drag a bit of the bread through the remaining sauce, pop the remnants of the meal in our mouth and sigh. It’s not food you’d want to eat every day, but so worth the calories.
Fresh greens tossed with a light vinaigrette dressing accompanied the crepe and helped to lighten the plate a bit.
A second classic lunch item is the croque monsieur ($11). Basically, it’s ham and cheese, but with a French spin, this mundane sandwich moves into the realm of spectacular.
Using above-standard ingredients such as Black Forest ham, Fontaine tops it with a thick layer of luscious bechamel sauce and broils it for mere seconds to create a lovely browned cap.
We’re told that there are plans for the front lower level of the restaurant, which is currently empty. “We are going to put a French market there. With breads, pastries, cheeses, you know, all of the good stuff,” Chirol says.
O Bistro Francais is open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on the weekend. There is a special brunch menu on the weekend and the restaurant is BYOB.