Jump to content
  • Welcome to the eG Forums, a service of the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters. The Society is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of the culinary arts. These advertising-free forums are provided free of charge through donations from Society members. Anyone may read the forums, but to post you must create a free account.

Review: Bloomsbury Bistro -- Raleigh


Varmint
 Share

Recommended Posts

There are some chefs who are able to take awesome ingredients, give them a slight tweak, and come up with a divine dish that is elegant, sophisticated, and ultimately, more than the sum of its parts. Tom Colicchio of New York's Gramercy Tavern and Craft come to mind, as does Ashley Christenson of Raleigh's Enoteca Vin. There are also chefs who venture down the path of "flavor explosions," where they're not afraid to put together lots of flavors to create a completely new, incredibly complex taste sensation. Ben Barker of Durham's Magnolia Grill is the best local example of that, and when a single ingredient is omitted from one of his dishes, it's noticeable.

Mastering either approach is difficult, and few chefs are able to pull it off. However, I'm finding a trend where more chefs are trying to overwhelm the diner, to dazzle her, to show off their culinary licks. John Toler, chef of Raleigh's Bloomsbury Bistro is one such person, and after dining at this acclaimed restaurant for the third time in the past couple of years, it's finally dawned on me that Chef Toler simply tries too hard. I like to dine at restaurants where the chefs create dishes that I wouldn't necessarily make at home. Bloomsbury Bistro fits that category, but this is because I wouldn't even want to make them at home or have someone make them for me. Too often, his dishes are ill-conceived combinations where the resulting taste is not some sensational explosion of balanced flavor, but they're just muddled mixtures with no rhyme or reason to their approach.

For example, I had an vichyssoise-like soup with asparagus and potatoes, served with pickled shrimp and sweet potatoes, dilled croutons and crème fraîche. This sounds great, but the soup itself lacked a flavor of asparagus, the pickled shrimp added nothing but texture, and the only dill flavor I got was from the frond of fresh dill atop the soup. The flavors here were dull.

On the other end of the spectrum was a large slab of grilled ono (overcooked, unfortunately), with a roasted pineapple risotto and a salsa of mango and macadamia nut, all served with a very spicy sesame oil. This dish wasn't bad, but it was overkill. The fruit was too sweet and it was if the sesame oil were added almost as an afterthought to offer some form of balance to the dish. The first 3 or 4 bites were fine, but after that, I had trouble eating the dish. It was too much.

Mrs. Varmint had an interesting appetizer of calamari "steak," stuffed with ricotta and spinach, deep-fried, and served atop a Sicilian style sweet and sour tomato sauce (sort of like a caponata, without the eggplant). Here, the calamari was essentially just a big, stuffed serving of your everyday fried calamari. This wasn't a bad start -- the flavors worked just fine. But then the sweet and sour sauce totally interfered with the earthiness of the cheese and spinach in the calamari. A little less sweet and a little less sour and it would have worked fine. But again, Chef Toler is out to impress us, and it just didn't work for Mrs. Varmint and me.

Fortunately, Mrs. Varmint ordered a vegetarian dish for some strange reason, and that worked out very well except where the Chef tried to show off. This was a well-executed dish of sauteed spring vegetables with an asparagus coulis and goat cheese, served with panko-encrusted fried portabello strips and spinach ricotta dumplings. The vegetables were wonderfully prepared, and the contrasting flavors of the tangy goat cheese with the fresh asparagus coulis worked perfectly. The crunch of the mushroom "fries" was a nice addition as well. The centerpiece of the dish, the dumplings, were completely unnecessary and added nothing to the dish. They were just "one more item" that the chef had to throw in there to show that he could create something unique.

We ended our meal with an interesting sounding dessert: Chocolate chip banana pudding creme brulee. Even here, the chocolate overwhelmed the bananas which overwhelmed the custard, resulting in some nice flavors that just didn't work well together. He should have omitted the chocolate, resulting in a lovely Southern twist on a classic French dessert.

I'd love to say that last night was an anomaly, but every time I've eaten at Bloomsbury, I've walked away dissatisfied. The prices are incredibly reasonable, the service is as good as you'll find in the region, and I enjoy the feel of the restaurant. I actually think that Chef Toler is a very talented chef, but ultimately, I also believe that he thinks he's more of a culinary genius than he actually is, which leads to the problems I see on every visit.

Here's a link to the Bloomsbury Bistro website: http://www.bloomsburybistro.com/.

Bloomsbury Bistro

509 W Whitaker Mill Rd Ste 101

Raleigh, NC 27608

(919) 834-9011

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Sounds like the chef certainly is trying too hard. This seems to be a trend among restaurants trying to appear better and more impressive than they really are. Nothing bothers me more than to see a perfectly good broth, fish, or piece of meat muddied by unnecessary and often ostentatious flavor combinations that look good on a menu but are then convoluted on the palate.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Don't get me wrong: Bloomsbury Bistro isn't a bad restaurant and Chef Toler is quite successful and has an impressive following. It's just that this restaurant and this chef's offerings have never worked for me.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Don't get me wrong: Bloomsbury Bistro isn't a bad restaurant and Chef Toler is quite successful and has an impressive following. 

Gee....sounds kind of like damning the place with faint praise. As for me, I'm happy to be among Chef Toler's "impressive following". I guess service and ambience carry more weight with me than with you; that said, I'll take BB any day over your favorite restaurant in Durham. Oh, by the way, I really enjoy Toler's food. To each his own.

CBHall

Link to comment
Share on other sites

As for me, I'm happy to be among Chef Toler's "impressive following".  I guess service and ambience carry more weight with me than with you;  that said, I'll take BB any day over your favorite restaurant in Durham.  Oh, by the way, I really enjoy Toler's food.  To each his own.

That's the beauty of dining -- there will never be consensus. I can't tell you how much I want to like this restaurant. It's close to home and the chef comes up with concepts that are quite creative. It has all the elements I look for when going out for a nice meal, but not once have I walked away satisfied.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

Link to comment
Share on other sites

That's the beauty of dining -- there will never be consensus.  I can't tell you how much I want to like this restaurant.  It's close to home and the chef comes up with concepts that are quite creative.  It has all the elements I look for when going out for a nice meal, but not once have I walked away satisfied.

That's too bad, although in all fairness, there have been times---back when we were getting dessert with our meals---that I wasn't entirely satisfied and it was the dessert that was the weak component. Now that I'm not getting dessert there....I'm always pleased. Odd, but seems that I generally don't care for the kind of desserts served in "fine dining" establishments....too contrived/gussied up or something?

CBHall

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I agree with Varmint, though I could not possibly have expressed myself in such an articulate manner.

I guess I wouldn't say that I leave BB disappointed, but I don't ever leave with a real desire to go back anytime soon, which I think tells the story.

Of course, I try to also look at local restaurants from another angle. If you want to go out to a nice dinner in Raleigh, what are your other options?

Vin and Fins are clearly superior in my mind, but more expensive.

I think I prefer Frazier's and Nana's Chophouse.

Bistro 607, Glenwood Grill, Second Empire, BB, etc all seem more or less comparable to me.

That's not a lot to pick from, and, judged from that perspective, I enjoy an occasional (ie maybe once a year) visit to BB. I'd probably enjoy it more if Varmint's observations were taken to heart.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I

Of course, I try to also look at local restaurants from another angle.  If you want to go out to a nice dinner in Raleigh, what are your other options?

Vin and Fins are clearly superior in my mind, but more expensive.

I think I prefer Frazier's and Nana's Chophouse.

Bistro 607, Glenwood Grill, Second Empire, BB, etc all seem more or less comparable to me.

I feel compelled to put in a good word for Mo's Diner....maybe not up to your standards of "fine dining" but certainly a fine place at which to have dinner. For those not familiar with downtown Raleigh, Mo's Diner isn't really a diner, rather a nice restaurant located in a (1920's?) bungalow across from one corner of Moore Square, consists of a central hall with several small dining rooms on each side plus porch dining in nice weather. "Mo" (short for his given name) is the chef/owner and his wife Holly manages the place and makes the luscious desserts. Mo's opened about 8 yrs. ago, menu hasn't undergone many changes nor has the well-trained waitstaff. The menu says something like "...simple food prepared with care"; you won't find cutting-edge cuisine here. It's comfort food. With a few exceptions (pasta dishes, seafood stew) entrees consist of meat/poultry/seafood with the same sides: a variety of several vegetables---usually grilled squash, green beans, mashed potatoes or rice, corn, sometimes sauteed spinach---and of course, you can always order just a vegetable plate. Many times, I've overheard satisfied patrons saying "That was the best duck breast/osso bucco/rack of lamb/etc. I've ever had". There are a variety of starters and salads, although not many changes over the years. The entire menu, minus desserts, fits on one page; there are usually one or two entree specials. Bread is not baked in-house; I think it comes from Whole Foods. As I said, Holly makes the desserts: again, nothing cutting-edge, but all scrumptious....cakes, tortes, cobblers, pies, cheesecake, etc, usually 6-7 choices. We eat there often during symphony season (a shuttle will pick up passengers at Mo's, drop-off at BTI Center and do the reverse at the end of the evening---for free, a darned good deal, IMO)---and have always been pleased. And if a guest isn't pleased for whatever reason, Holly and Mo want to know about it and make it right.

We like Frazier's.....only problem is with parking when NCSU is in session.

Nana's Chophouse: the ambience wasn't for us; one visit was enough.

Bistro 607: I'm surprised this place is still in business; we stopped going there a few years back after too many "off" nights. Maybe they've changed chefs/managers since then?

Glenwood Grill: OK, but can get pretty noisy. Maybe it's our age, but seems to us that a constant din in restaurants seems to appeal to younger people whereas we're put off by it.

We've always been pleased with BB; on the other hand, Varmint's opinions re BB are similar to ours re Second Empire. Seems to me that SE has always had more style than substance.

CBHall

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Although I generally enjoy BB and have had some great meals there, I agree with Varmint and often find it hard to put together an entire meal there. Lately we have preferred getting a selection of apetizers for carryout and enjoying those as small plates so we can sample the wide range of seasonal options without investing in a full meal. Not all of the apps travel well, of course, but for the price it can be a reasonable way to add adventure to take out. I aslo have to add that I really hate the smoking permitted at the bar. Even seated as far away as possible I find the smoke wafting over and interrupting the meal.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I also have to add that I really hate the smoking permitted at the bar.  Even seated as far away as possible I find the smoke wafting over and interrupting the meal.

Hate when that happens. If I'm not mistaken Magnolia Grill also allows smoking at the bar, while Enoteca Vin and Fins do not.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 3 weeks later...
Don't get me wrong: Bloomsbury Bistro isn't a bad restaurant and Chef Toler is quite successful and has an impressive following.  It's just that this restaurant and this chef's offerings have never worked for me.

Varmint,

Do you feel the same way about the Cosmopolitan Grill? It seems from a chefs perspective that its difficult to manage the food at a single restaurant nevertheless two places across town. Scott Howell ran into that same problem, stretching himself too thin.

I think ben is probably the most comfortable within his style and restaurant, this gives him the necessary room to grow. Its like his home away from home. He even has corny and homey decorations which are beautifully original. Ben isnt trying to apease an audience, just make smart food.

ben and karen are definitely the most confident and skilled pair in the triangle.

I have to put my vote in for magnolia, especially after working with pretty much everyone in town.

The complexity of flavor is a token of durable appreciation. Each Time you taste it, each time it's a different story, but each time it's not so different." Paul Verlaine

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I haven't eaten at the Cosmo, so I don't have an opinion. But my problem with Bloomsbury has been the style of John Toler's cooking in general. Looking at the Cosmo's menu, I don't see a great difference between the two restaurants. Maybe I'm wrong. Anyhow, if someone wants to treat me to a dinner at Cosmo, I'll gladly drive over to Cary! :wink:

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I haven't eaten at the Cosmo, so I don't have an opinion.  But my problem with Bloomsbury has been the style of John Toler's cooking in general.  ...  :wink:

I will reitirate, is it the style, or the execution of style?

The complexity of flavor is a token of durable appreciation. Each Time you taste it, each time it's a different story, but each time it's not so different." Paul Verlaine

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I haven't eaten at the Cosmo, so I don't have an opinion.  But my problem with Bloomsbury has been the style of John Toler's cooking in general.  ...  :wink:

I will reitirate, is it the style, or the execution of style?

I guess I attribute it to his recipe development. As I stated in my initial post, I want to love this food. I read the menu and get excited. But Chef Toler's flavor combinations do not work for me. They didn't work for Mrs. Varmint, either. So in many ways, you can say it's the style and the execution, but mostly it's the taste.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I haven't eaten at the Cosmo, so I don't have an opinion.  But my problem with Bloomsbury has been the style of John Toler's cooking in general.  ...  :wink:

I will reitirate, is it the style, or the execution of style?

We were at BB last weekend and while I was pleased with my selections, hub had a problem with the "style execution" of his entree: Portuguese style slow-cooked pork roast (seemed more like a heavy winter meal to me) was tough, perhaps not slow-cooked long enough? And we both agreed that our server, a woman whom we'd never seen before, seemed to be rather "rough around the edges". All in all, not our best trip to BB.

CBHall

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I haven't eaten at the Cosmo, so I don't have an opinion.  But my problem with Bloomsbury has been the style of John Toler's cooking in general.  ...  :wink:

I will reitirate, is it the style, or the execution of style?

We were at BB last weekend and while I was pleased with my selections, hub had a problem with the "style execution" of his entree: Portuguese style slow-cooked pork roast (seemed more like a heavy winter meal to me) was tough, perhaps not slow-cooked long enough? And we both agreed that our server, a woman whom we'd never seen before, seemed to be rather "rough around the edges". All in all, not our best trip to BB.

All restaurants, even the good ones, have off dishes and off nights. Seeing you usually like Bloomsbury, I'd chalk that up to an off night.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

Link to comment
Share on other sites

 Share

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
×
×
  • Create New...