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One of the things that define a good neighborhood is the type and quality of the restaurants that serve them. Downtown and the upscale hotel eateries in the region are dependent on customers willing to travel, park and brave the annoyances unique to their locales. While a good neighborhood restaurant also draws customers from beyond its locality, its livelihood is ultimately tied to the loyalty of nearby residents. This devotion allows a neighborhood eatery to transcend many of the shortcomings of its competitors in tonier locales. Such is the case with Blue Bohème, which opened in Kensington four years ago and continues to draw significant crowds on a regular basis.
While one can quickly find flaws in the cooking, it is difficult to find too much fault with the meal. The smooth service, the lively banter of nearby tables, the comforting decor and the sense that your meal has been painstakingly crafted by people who care about cuisine all add up to an experience that transcends the sum of its parts.
At Blue Bohème, the experience is all about the comfort level of the guest. Its menu is solidly based in the French bistro tradition, sans (most of the) organ meats and other peculiarly Gallic oddities that one might find in its Parisian counterpart.
The restaurant includes a lively bar room, complete with giant chalk boards listing offerings grouped by “La Tradition,” “La Saison” and “Le Menu du Jour”. An outdoor cafe surrounds the building, where conversations between diners and passers-by provide ample entertainment and testimony to the true neighborhood character of the place. Beyond the bar is an intimate and (only) slightly more formal dining area with linen topped tables framed by a rustic stone and wood decor.
Beverage choices include a Franco-centric wine list, a decent selection of Euro-craft beers and the must-have basil martini, which graced many of the tables around us. This is one of the few places where I would even feel safe recommending the “house wine” should the list appear daunting to you. Really.
The menu contains no surprises, with nods towards seasonality and a wide enough variance in both complexity and cost to make it inclusive of the desires of both Francophiles and not-so-adventurous eaters. Starters include planks with varying arrays of traditional cheeses and charcuterie (the house made pâté and duck mousse with truffles are the two stand outs in the latter category), escargot (excellent), traditional onion soup, calamari with aioli, puff pastry with bacon, onions, apples and cheese, and Camembert fondue with requisite apples and croutons.
A half-dozen variations on “Les Moules Frites” (Carlsbad mussels with fries) provide the lighter or cost-conscious eater with savory sauces begging to be dipped up with the superb home-made bread, slightly sour (from the natural starter) and texturally satisfying thanks to the rye and whole wheat flours used in its baking.
The Salade Niçoise, topped with an amazing amount of seared fresh tuna, shows both the strengths and the weaknesses of the kitchen. The locally sourced greens are gently tossed with perfectly made mustard vinaigrette. The petite potatoes are tender yet toothsome, the lightly steamed green beans taste just picked, and the whole salad is topped with finely minced chives. Lurking below the lettuce, however, were the mother lode of olives and capers. For the first time in my life — and I love them dearly — I had to say “pas plus” to the cured creations of the Mediterranean. I stopped counting at two dozen olives.
On a recent visit the King Salmon, cooked in papillote with ratatouille was, alas, overcooked, with the red fleshed fish oozing unsightly white rivulets of proteins. The kitchen’s interpretation of the traditional French vegetable mélange seemed more like roasted vegetables than ratatouille to my palate. The fish itself was beautiful, and the best guess at the portion size at our table topped out at over twelve ounces. The leftovers made for some wonderful scrambled eggs the following morning.
Other entrées are a virtual “greatest hits” of bistro cuisine, including Coq Au Vin, Duck Confit, Beouf Bourguignon and Filet Mignon with three sauces. The du jour special on our most recent visit was diver scallops encrusted with pistachios and, judging by the “oohing and awing” going on around us in the dining room, they must have been pretty tasty.
You’ll find no foams, towers or food fantasies frozen in liquid nitrogen here. Mostly, you’ll walk away satisfied.
Don’t forget to pause long enough at the end of your repast for the “Super G” organic coffee, some of the most excellent restaurant coffee I’ve ever tasted — not so for the Crème Brulée. This tasted of scrambled egg yolks, most likely due to the failure of some budding chef to strain the custard mix prior to baking. You’ll be happier with the Crèpe au Nutella (a crepe filled with chocolate hazelnut spread, topped with white chocolate ice cream) or the Tarte Chaude aux Pommes Fines (apple tart topped with caramel and crème fraiche).
And, so it goes at Blue Bohème. The portions are generous to a fault. The ingredients are first class. The menu concepts are tried and true. The food mostly tastes terrific. But look beyond the razzle-dazzle of the appealing presentations and there are sometimes puzzling inconsistencies. Mostly, you have to wonder how they’re making any money, but then you realize that the old industry saying “volume hides a multitude of sins” must be in play here as you see the line of hungry diners out the door.
Blue Bohème goes beyond the quality of the food, the authenticity of the experience and the level of service to the next level of restaurant triumph: its beloved by its neighborhood. All the chefs and marketing geniuses in the world can’t equal the local loyalty that is the backbone of its success. You can sense it in the air when you are there. Those folks in Kensington sure are lucky.
— DOUG PORTER