by Mel Small
It was with some trepidation that I entered Bon Vie, the four-month-old bistro on the second floor of Somerset South in the old Portobello.
I am never excited about eating dinner in a mall, even if Somerset calls itself a Collection. Brunch or lunch, perhaps, but dinner? And I generally try to steer clear of chains. Of even more concern, anyone who had first-year French would know that the restaurant should be called Bonne Vie.
Bon Vie is only the second unit in a chain run by the Ohio-based Bravo Development Company (it also owns Brio on the first floor of Somerset South), so for now it is barely a chain. Moreover, for a community with such a rich French background, we have precious few restaurants that boast a Gallic kitchen. Even Bon Vie doesn't quite fit the bill since half the menu is straightforward American, a reflection of ownership's concern that unpopular France does not support administration foreign policy. Remember "freedom fries"?
In fact, when I asked manager Susan Sparling about the official spelling of Bon Vie and the anomalous "La Bonne Vie" on a sign on an interior wall, she admitted that corporate was worried about appearing too French in the wake of our invasion of Iraq. Nevertheless, the bustling little bistro sure looks French, with its zinc bar and ceiling and colorful red-and-white-striped awnings covering an outside patio overlooking Starbucks and the strolling swells who shop at Somerset.
Bon Vie certainly scores with its crispy Tomato Provençal Flatbread appetizer ($9), which surpasses most of the thin designer pizzas offered for firsts elsewhere. And the roasted beets, accompanied by green beans, cheese and almonds ($7) compete easily with many of the recently trendy beet salads I have had. I wish I could say the same about the immense but just OK Salad Nicoise ($13), where the seemingly unmarinated potato and tuna cubes and minuscule egg bits were slightly off-key.
On the other hand, there was nothing wrong with the cute, suitably crusty mini-baguette that arrived at the table, via chef Edward Takacs kitchen, in a paper bag. His kitchen is a tiny one that has little room for a serious freezer, which means that few of his preparations ever suffer a frozen state. (Those cramped quarters behind the dining area also mean that patrons must use the mall restroom across the hallway).
Although a few of the 15 entrées soar into the $20s, most fall comfortably within the mid-to high-teens, such as, for example, Atlantic salmon, presented somewhat unusually with mushrooms and capers in a lemon sauce. It was a tad salty, perhaps because of the caper brine, but French cuisine often is a tad salty for some American tastes. Sticking to the sea, Takacs clearly knows how to compose a traditional bouillabaisse. His rendition consists of a generous slab of red snapper and shrimp, clams and mussels in a sophisticated Pernod-saffron broth, and though they are more New World than Old World, his lush and dense crabcakes with al dente, slender haricots verts are another winner.
And what would an authentic bistro be without steak au poivre or steak frites? Bon Vie's hefty portions of deftly seasoned, marbled beef easily meet the authenticity test, although those with tender palates should steer clear of the incendiary pepper steak. Steak plates come with a choice of one of the bistro's several outstanding side salads.
Potatoes are another of Bon Vie's strengths, especially the golden-brown frites and the roasted fingerlings that are paired with a juicy marinated all-American Nieman Ranch (Take that Normandy!) pork chop. But those irresistible frites pose a problem for anyone who orders mussels mariniere. The potatoes are perched precariously in a bowl-overflowing, 3-inch-tall pile atop the almost invisible mussels, which themselves are atop the-impossible-to-get-to-without-making-a-mess broth. Further, those used to dainty Prince Edward Island mussels may not fancy the much larger and chewier Turner Greenlips.
As befits a respectable bistro, Bon Vie has an interesting global wine list with one-third of the two dozen bottles less than $30. Both the white and red Cotes de Rhone selections offer good value.
Desserts ($5-$6) are French traditional with the dreamy lemon tart a fine choice among the crème brûlée, chocolate mousse, profiteroles, and cherry clafouti. The young servers are more friendly than most Parisian garcons, although I do not think many of them would ever use the dreadful Americanism, "Are you still working on it?" which suggests that dining is some sort of manual labor.
But Bon Vie is still a work in progress and a most promising one at that. Whatever Detroiters may think of frère Jacques Chirac, who, in any event, was prescient when he argued against the latest Gulf War, this lively French bistro helps to fill one of our major culinary gaps.
Mel Small, who reviewed restaurants for MT from 1982-85, is distinguished professor of history at Wayne State University, and has very good table manners. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.