John D Bistro
22726 Woodward Ave.
Sandwiches & small plates: $7-$14; entrées: $15-$29
Open 4-11 p.m. Mondays, 4 p.m.-midnight Tuesdays and Sundays, 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Wednesdays, 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Thursday-Saturday
According to its website, John D Bistro aspires to be a place where "liberal arts pioneers, forward thinkers, creatives, musicians and writers" can "gather over food and drinks to exchange ideas, debate, drink and enjoy," similar to the cafés of 1920s European capitals.
I'm not so sure how much philosophizing or debating was going on, but on a recent Thursday night, there was plenty of drinking and enjoying. The place was packed to the gills with the 25-35 singles crowd, downing martinis and sloe gin fizzes as Latin jazz trio Sin Hielo played frantically on the stage above. On each of our visits, we were close enough to couples on either side that we had to physically move during our meal so that they could get in and out. Needless to say, it's not the place for a tête-à-tête if you value privacy, but some might enjoy the convivial aspect of literally rubbing elbows with your neighbors.
A first glance at the menu, with chicken "lollipops" and a couple iterations of upscale sliders, affirms that the restaurant is following trends rather than setting them. We tried the most unique-sounding thing on the menu, the John D PB&J, which the menu describes as "foie gras w/ truffles, Dalmatian fig spread, edible flower." This led us to believe we were going to get warm pieces of sautéed foie gras; what came out was slightly stale squares of brioche with a smear of fig jam and foie gras mousse piped on top. If there were any truffles present in the mousse, we couldn't detect their flavor. The overall effect wasn't bad, but if you're expecting actual foie gras, a chilled mousse is a bit of a letdown.
Over multiple visits we sampled a parade of small plates: curried mussels (too sweet and not enough heat to be interesting); stuffed cherry peppers (a fun and tasty accompaniment to drinks); calamari (tender, pinky-finger-thick strips in an acceptable wine sauce); a Caprese salad (cutely presented to look like nigiri but with sad, tasteless tomatoes). Chicken lollipops and duck confit were the clear winners. The lollipops are a dressed-up presentation of buffalo wings — Frenched like lamb chops, with a crispy exterior and pleasantly tangy sauce. Portion-wise, they represent one of the better values on the menu. The duck confit, a rich and earthy melding of duck and mushrooms in a puff pastry crust, was fork-tender and prompted my fellow diner to comment that he would have gladly ordered it in a dinner portion if available.
The menu is divided roughly in thirds, with sandwiches and entrées making up the balance. The entrées elicited yawns for the most part, except for the filet mignon, which won praises from one of our party who has spent time working in high-end steakhouses. Tender as a filet should be but firm enough to chew without turning to a fatty paste, the flavor is distinct, clean and delicious; a confident and put-together cut of beef. The whiskey mushroom sauce makes an appropriate dressing for the somewhat punched-up flavor of the meat.
The sandwich segment of the menu has the most to offer in terms of interesting food at more moderate, although still somewhat inflated prices (it should be noted that many prices on the website are incorrect; the restaurant has already seen fit to raise prices on several items by $1-$2). Duck sliders, containing the same meat-mushroom combination as the duck confit, are piled high on buttery toasted brioche rolls. Lamb sliders have the same presentation of piled, shredded meat (as opposed to a burger format), with a zingy yogurt sauce. At $14, both should come with fries, but those are $2 more. A co-diner enjoyed his John D burger, which has a few extras, such as artichokes and roasted grape tomatoes. Another person's turkey burger with mango salsa was the juiciest any of us had ever had. We ordered two of our sandwiches without fries but they were brought anyway and we were charged accordingly; I'll chalk that up to the exceedingly loud atmosphere. We didn't bother to point out the error, since we ate and enjoyed most of them. Crusted with Parmesan, they were tasty and addictive.
After experiencing subpar cocktails on a first visit, we stuck to wine on subsequent trips. While not offering anything exceptional, there are some pleasant wines by the glass, and the overall list is affordable. However, we overheard our server mentioning that the list will be redone in the near future, so improvements could be imminent.
Service was consistently beyond reproach — the night the live band was performing, we were quite impressed that our server was able to take such good care of her tables considering the surrounding chaos. With so many restaurants treating their front-of-the-house staff as an afterthought to menu and design, it was refreshing to see that service is a clear priority. Owner Eddie Farah makes a point of making the rounds, checking on tables and chatting with customers.
Much has been made of the restaurant's design, which features a dramatic curtained entryway, exposed brick and a black velvet-and-mirrored headboard along one wall. However, the single biggest improvement since the space's former incarnation as Club Bart is the new garage-door style windowed façade, which opens up in nice weather.
John D Bistro might not be an exact fit for Ferndalians looking for a new neighborhood casual-dining spot, but if you go when it's less crowded and order strategically, it can come close to filling that niche. And who knows — perhaps the tight layout will facilitate people being inspired to "exchange some ideas" with the creatives and forward-thinkers at the next table.
Noelle Lothamer dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org