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Bistro de la Gare, back on track

After a great start eight or nine years ago, this central South Pas place became more and more of a disappointment over time, with food that was less than it used to be and service off as well. The last time Mrs. O and I were in the tightly walled-in front room, a table occupied by women conversing in screams caused mine to declare she'd never return.

The place has changed hands since, so when Mrs. O made plans to dine with some former classmates last night I thought I'd see what if any improvements had been made there. The first one was obvious inside the door: the bar is now to the left, the main dining room to the right, and the walls have been opened up to light, air, and reduced echo effects. The bluntly pleasant young French hostess/server was a nice change, too, showing me to a comfortable corner table with a good view of everything. The printed menu shows simpler dishes and slightly higher prices than the online one, but the ones I'd already decided on, the escargot and a steak-frites, were still within reason.

Water showed up immediately – eau de tap in a French bottle, but that's what I'd asked for – and, after I'd ordered my escargot and a glass of Sancerre, so did a basket of very good-looking crusty bread, with a small ramekin of tapenade. It was a nice enough tapenade but I prefer butter, and I was brought some right away. The Sancerre arrived and met expectations, and perhaps ten minutes later so did the escargot, sizzling violently in their little pockets and smelling divine, if you like garlic. The snails were a bit too hot at that point, but another shipment of bread gave me something to explore their buttery garlicky juices with, and I began to feel very, very happy. The plump little molluscs themselves just made it even better, bread and snail making great bites together. I've mentioned before how the staff at another, fancier "Bistro" whisked away my escargot plate just as I was reaching for the bread; in this case, the server not only asked if I was done well after I'd leaned back in a state of bliss, he asked again to make sure! Class shows.

There are two steak-with-fries options on the menu, a NY strip and a filet mignon, the latter for a dollar less, but smaller and with a small green salad garnish. I normally don't go for filet, but was encouraged by the fine flavors so far to try it, and a glass of a French pinot noir. My only regret at the end was that I'd asked for medium-rare; the meat was perfect when it arrived, but had cooked a bit too much more by the last few bites. It was not however the flabby, near-flavorless filet I'd had too many of: it had a good bite and fine flavor, and the wine reduction was perfectly seasoned and in no way overpowering. The little mound of sprouts and wild greens was very lightly dressed, very fresh and very refreshing. As for the wine, it was pleasant but unexceptional; I think our native pinots are spoiling us.

State of bliss not only maintained but increased, the arrival of the tab just made everything even better. No, it was not cheap: $13 for the escargot and $13.50 for the Sancerre, $28 for the filet and $11 for the pinot noir. I figured the water would be free, but was very much surprised to see that the mountain of fine bread I'd had so much fun with was on the cuff as well. With tax and tip it was just under $85, a good bit more than my usual meal tab but worth every nickel. Noting that there were several regular menu items and one special that a vegetarian could enjoy, I'm going to save up my spare change and take Mrs. O there sometime. Especially now that the noise level is but a murmur …

I suppose I should add:
Bistro de la Gare
921 Meridian Ave.
South Pasadena 91030

626.799.8828

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  1. i was wondering as i saw the sign saying new ownership while checking out the farmers' market yesterday afternoon. i had really enjoyed the place when it first opened.

    1. nice write up
      love the snails

      1. My experience over the years echoes your opening paragraph. Sounds like it might be time for me to give it another shot as well.

        1. Local pinots should never spoil anyone.
          Until you have spent much time tasting the French versions, the California or Oregon versions should never spoil anyone. Most of them taste like candy, way over-sugared, just like much food in restaurants these days.
          When will savory ever re-enter the American tastebud.
          Regardless of cuisine, sugar is endemic to nearly every restaurant entrée or app preparation.
          I get a toothache just reading some menus on line.

          16 Replies
          1. re: carter

            Would add most American Pinot is not purely Pinot. Meritsge is the order of the day in the states.

            Thx Will for the terrific update!

            1. re: revets2

              My understanding is that Meritage is a Bordeaux style blend and would not include pinot noir. It seems pinot noirs are generally not blends, except with different pinot noirs.

              1. re: martan

                time to venture down there again and give bistro de la gare another shot--perhaps after the thursday farmers market. just to jump on the meritage sub-thread (and muddy the waters even more) "meritage" is an American term--it is properly pronounced mer-i-tij (rhyming with heritage), not mer-i-taj, revealing its american roots, i think. ('tho 80% of the time i hear it pronounced the second way, with a french accent). a portmanteau of merit and heritage, it is usually reserved for bordeaux style blends, so would not include pinot noir. to properly be considered for meritage labeling, a red meritage blend should include cab, cab franc, malbec, merlot, carminere and/or petit verdot.

                1. re: martan

                  Really?

                  In the US, when a wine label carries the name of a grape variety, the wine must be made from at least 75% of that grape variety. Every country has different blending rules.

                  Here's a good article on the subject:
                  http://www.sfgate.com/wine/article/Pi...

                  1. re: revets2

                    The article states that the wineries would deny having Syrah in their pinots. And, the author says his suspicions apply to the bargain range. And the article says it's going on in France. Which would seem to make it less an American problem.

                    1. re: martan

                      Maybe I don't understand what you are trying to say.

                      I'm commenting the "American problem" is not the illicit labeling which does exist. I'm stating the "American problem" is the law.

                      By law, you may state that pinot noir is pinot noir if 75% of pinot noir is used. It could be 25% of anything else, but still labeled pinot.

                      In France, if it labeled pinot noir, by law, it should be 100% pinot noir (illegal bottlings withstanding).

                      I was using "meritage" as tongue and cheek expressing my frustration with many American consumers thinking they are drinking 100% of something and it's not. I appreciate when a vintner breaks down the varietal content on the label.

                      I remember someone once brought a high end Pinot ($100+) to a blind tasting. It drank more like petite syrah - candy sweet and fruit forward. No one guessed the stated varietal on the label. Some of those attending were distributors, master somms, winemakers. The non-industry fellow was pretty smug he'd stumped everyone when in fact the wine was 75% pinot, but the other 25% consisted of petit verdot and petit syrah.

                      I don't begrudge winemakers who blend to achieve an end result; I don't believe it should be called that varietal if they are using 20%+ of other grapes.

                      Just my opinion, however, I'm sure there are many other wine lovers and winemakers who would staunchly disagree.

                      Other helpful references
                      WINE TYPE
                      Mandatory. A wine may be labeled by a grape or varietal name such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon, or it may be given a generic name such as “Red Table Wine.” Wines using varietal names must derive at least 75% of their volume from the grape designated, and the varietal name must appear on the label with an appellation of origin. Although not required, many wineries voluntarily list the proportions of the grape varieties that comprise their wine blends.
                      Source:http://www.napavintners.com/wines/how...

                      http://www.winetrail.com/whatsinaname...

                        1. re: chez cherie

                          You keep quoting rules about Meritage, but I've explicitly stated that I used "Meritage" as tongue and cheek (a figure of speech used to imply that a statement is humorously or otherwise not seriously intended, and it should not be taken at face value). I didn't even spell it correctly!

                          Take my t&c use of "meritage" and insert "red blend" or "red table wine". It was used to validate carter's point:

                          "Until you have spent much time tasting the French versions, the California or Oregon versions should never spoil anyone. Most of them taste like candy, way over-sugared, just like much food in restaurants these days."

                          And my point, other than the manipulation of the grape to achieve this process is the blending of other grapes into domestic "pinot" which make them taste much like what carter describes above.

                          I'm both a first growth Bordeaux and Burgundy collector. I know the rules. That's my complaint. I don't like the rules.

                          And while we're on the subject of "Meritage", it is NOT a rule, it is a licensed trademark borne out of frustration of the same 75% ABT rule I've stated before. And remember, it does not rhyme with "garage", it rhymes with "heritage".

              2. re: carter

                Funny, Carter, I dislike noticeable sweetness in just about any wine, and seldom detect it in most American pinots I've tried. I must admit that the best one I've encountered lately was not local, but one from the Marlborough region of NZ. TJ's had it for I think $11 but ran out after getting me hooked – can't even remember the name now.

                This was nice enough, but hadn't the limpid clarity of flavor I look for. LaForge was the label.

                1. re: carter

                  carter,

                  This is SoPas, after all.

                  1. re: carter

                    Carter, just to explore the territory a bit more I got a French pinot noir from TJ's yesterday – Revelation – and found it very good. I submitted it to the in-house bec fin, Mrs. O, who does not as a rule care for reds, and she asked me to pour her a glass. I don't think she'd have liked the La Forge, though.

                    1. re: Will Owen

                      Never buy wine at TJs, and you will be better off for it.
                      And NZ & AUSTRALIA both have heavily sugared-tasting pinots, not unlike the California versions, and sugar is the major ingredient - not by addition but by maturation. Oregon is the same thing.
                      Stick to the French who understand what burgundy can be, and while not being able to afford the high-rent stuff, the lower end stuff is better than most anything from any other country, and true to the grape.

                      1. re: carter

                        De gustibus non disputandem est, sez me. The only reason I can think of for buying wine anywhere but TJ's is that either there isn't one close enough or I'm in some benighted place where they can't sell wine. Right now I have a rack full of a côtes du Rhone and pinot noir, both French, both from TJ's; I like them and so does Mrs. O, and the price was right. End of story. YMMV, as they say on the car-freak boards …

                        1. re: Will Owen

                          Right on!

                          I'm fortunate enough to have several places near my home or on my shopping routes [Mission Liquors; Burbank Costco; Vons Pasadena] where I can get good wine deals, but I'm with you: lots of perfectly fine everyday wine at TJs. If I'm shopping there, I don't need to make a second stop for wine.

                  2. Update alert, for anyone who cares at all: Mrs. O and I have reservations for 8:00 tonight. Report will follow in due course.