VERO BEACH — There’s a new bijou in Vero – and at this one, the dishes are the jewels. It has been a couple of years since we tried a new area restaurant that truly excited us, but the soft opening of Bijou last week on 14th Avenue – across the street and about a block south of Avanzare – seems likely to be the culinary highlight of the coming season.
Funny we should mention Avanzare, because owners Roger and Terry Lenzi are also behind this nouveau French bistro. To launch this restaurant, they have let Chef Chuck Arnold – who shared the Avanzare kitchen these past couple of years – move across the avenue to their new venture.
He is joined at Bijou by his wife Kathleen, who had been a server extraordinaire at Avanzare; sous chef Brian Webber, a new face in town; and several veteran servers who will be instantly recognized by island diners.
Headline news: Just as Avanzare is not exactly classic Italian, Bijou is not exactly classic French. But if you like the Italian-influenced creations at Avanzare, we think you are going to love the French Mediterranean-inspired dishes at Bijou. The single-page menu offers six appetizers and eight entrées that all sound interesting, and on your first visit, the challenge will be deciding which of these tempting selections to try.
Look & Feel: Bijou is a fairly small restaurant – about 45 tables, plus space for a half dozen diners at a dining bar facing the open kitchen. For a foodie, the bar is a great choice – an opportunity to interact with the chef as well as drool over the outgoing dishes you didn’t order. The main dining area is attractive but small. Our guess is in February, tables are going to be hard to come by.
Food: On a visit last week, our server started us with fresh house-made rustic rolls. For appetizers, I ordered the Frenchstyle crab cake ($11) and my husband opted for the crispy semolina crusted oysters ($12). The crab cake, which used only a shrimp mousse as a binder, was pan seared and served with sherry cream and a celery root, apple and sweet onion slaw. The mousse makes a great binder that allows the clean crab flavor to shine, and the slaw as an excellent accompaniment.
My husband’s Apalachicola oysters were dusted with the thinnest layer of semolina and fried perfectly, served with an apple lemon marmalade and a jalapeño remoulade. My husband said the contrasting light and sweet taste of the marmalade and the mildly spicy remoulade made these oysters stand apart from others he has enjoyed.
Then for entrées, I decided to try the jumbo sea scallops ($25) and my husband chose the monkfish cassoulet ($25). The scallops were seared to perfection, with just the lightest of crusts holding in their sweet, tender goodness. They were served over a delicious creamy cauliflower risotto with fall mushrooms, and topped with frizzled carrots.
The monkfish, a firm-textured, meaty fish that has long been a favorite, was served over a green lentil stew of smoked sausage and oven roasted tomatoes, with a grilled shallot and smoked paprika jus and saffron aioli croutons. A very successful dish. While we normally are inclined after a great meal to pass up dessert, we couldn’t resist when told all six offers were made in-house by Chef Arnold. We tried the Caramel tasting ($9) and the flourless chocolate cake with chocolate nut cluster ($8). The caramel tasting consisted of a petite crème caramel, a toffee short bread, and sea salt caramel ice cream. You won’t have any regrets with either of these – or probably any of the others.
Drink: Bijou offers a nice selection of reasonably priced French and California wines, both by the bottle and the glass, including an excellent French rose that is the perfect complement for seafood dishes.
Service: Unlike many new restaurants with shakeout problems, Bijou seemed already in mid-season form. Servers knowledgeable about the dishes and wines – and seemingly eager to make this new venture a success – struck us as already as good as you are likely find in establishments that have been around a few years.
Prices: Prices are attractive, with appetizers running from $10 to $12 – and salads from $6 to $8 – and entrees ranging from $12 for a sumptuous looking Bijou bistro burger up to a high of $25 for several of the seafood dishes.
Initial impressions: We are a bit reluctant to say try Bijou sooner rather than later, because when word gets around, we fear this smallish restaurant is going to be mobbed. For tastes of Mediterranean France in Vero Beach, you are going to have a hard time beating this new bistro. I welcome your comments, and encourage you to send feedback to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The reviewer dines anonymously at restaurants at the expense of Vero Beach 32963.