When you go to Bizou Brasserie at the new Le Meridien hotel, don’t go in through the side door.
Walk the wide steps up the front of the former courthouse and pass between the giant, stone pillars bathed in accent light. Feel the drama of this gorgeous, 109-year-old building, and the marble under your feet.
But mention it to your dining companions now — because once you’re inside you might have to shout it.
The incredible roar is the first thing you notice when you enter a busy night in the dining room, with its beautifully high ceilings, and beefy, dark-wood everything else.
This isn’t a place for timid, romantic whisperings or, say, negotiating an international peace accord that requires every syllable to be crystal-clear understood, but if you’re with a crew that’s jovial and spirited (read: uninhibited and loud) in its conversation, you’ll overcome the sound barrier easily.
The tasty prohibition-era-inspired specialty cocktails help with that quite a bit, even if they did take a long time to come out, leading us to order simpler scotches on the rocks the next time around.
The room itself overcomes, too, retaining its re-purposed uniqueness, in spite of a wall filled with pictures from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and Paris street scenes that could have been selected during a 10-minute stop at any Target. The preserved door to the restrooms reading “United States Witness Room,” a holdover from the building’s former life, is more like it.
The service and menu straddle the elegance you’d expect at a French place in a luxury hotel, and the relaxed vibe that “brasserie” implies. The servers always spoke to us in an elegant manner, “yes sir,” and “very good sir,” but you wouldn’t feel out of place stopping in for a no-reservations bite in jeans on a Tuesday night. You’d also feel perfectly right in a suit and tie, celebrating a friend’s milestone birthday (I did both).
The food pleased us from the first bite of hot, fresh bread with the pointy, pull-apart crust. Right away we knew anything baked was going to be a winner (actually, you have to walk by the bakery on your way in, and it was never far from our mind after that).
That led us to the escargot appetizer, a must-try, with the snails served inside a perfectly flaky/buttery puff pastry. The large pieces of meat were so savory they almost reminded us of sausage, but with a better texture.
The salads were obviously created with care, except for the Caesar, which came with anchovies that were fried into displeasing little bits. But the beet salad was a perfect savory-sweet combo, super fresh, with big, square hunks of beet, lots of candied walnuts and a big disc of goat cheese with bubbly little burns on top. The butter lettuce salad was velvety, melting with the tangy-gooey Roquefort and cut by strips of paper-thin pear
Of the two entrees that were recommended by servers repeatedly, the duck breast was excellent, and a generous portion of pan-seared meat, while the monkfish was only OK.
The monkfish (an ugly sucker, if you get a chance to Google it) came wrapped in serrano ham, which was annoying to cut through and didn’t add much, served on a bed of what were basically bland home fries. That left our pescatarian diner going for the salmon, which was cooked perfectly, with a ratatouille and red-pepper sauce that is so good it could be put in a bowl and served as a meal alone. Same goes for the Colorado rack of lamb ≠— the meat was great, and you’ll scrape the plate for the carrot puree and olive and artichoke tapenade.
There was some dessert confusion. Once, we were given an option of two desserts, with no mention of the bakery. Another time, we were told there was no dessert menu, but we could order anything we wanted from the bakery, but that forced us to leave our table and awkwardly exit the dining room to inspect the goods at the bakery’s display case.
That’s unfortunate, because Bizou’s desserts might be some of the best in the city. The creme brulee, in its many forms, always had a crisp shell that shattered perfectly. The giant slice of blueberry cheesecake, which looks like something Tim Burton dreamed up in his “Beetlejuice” days, is a showstopper. The eclairs, well, let’s just say I’ve thought of them often.
Pair any of these items with the gourmet Italian Illy coffee, and this is the kind of place you leave dinner at another restaurant to eat dessert at. Better yet, just go here and eat dessert for dinner.
As for the confusion, it’s nothing a printed dessert menu or a cart wouldn’t solve.