Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, December 14, 2005
If not hand-picked, most of the ingredients at Chef’s Bistro and Bakery taste like it.
Chef’s Bistro and Bakery
Quiche of the day $6.95
Cranberry chicken salad $6.95
Bistro sandwich $5.95
Brown Bag It?

Chef’s Bistro and Bakery subtly raises the question: Is “homemade” the same as “I could’ve done this at home”?


Chef’s Bistro and Bakery

138 S Bowen, Ste 116, Arlington. 817-303-71714. Mon-Fri 11am-6pm. All major credit cards accepted.

Years ago a lot of little mom-and-pop cafés stopped advertising their food as “homemade” and switched to the more artisanal-sounding “hand-made,” but both labels are designed to conjure an image for potential patrons: A guy from the neighborhood working the kitchen with a headful of simple but fabulous family recipes, using “only the freshest ingredients,” ones preferably grown in the garden behind the establishment.

Veteran foodies, of course, know that the “h” labels can mean very different things. In the worst case, “homemade” can be shorthand for the owner’s layabout son surrounded by a half-empty bottle of Miracle Whip, an open loaf of Mrs. Baird’s, and various cold cut packages, attempting to fob off his creation as a “deli-style sandwich.” In other words, “homemade” can mean “I could’ve made that at home.”

No one behind the small counter at Chef’s Bistro and Bakery looked like a lazy, resentful relation, and the soups, salads, sandwiches, and quiches on a recent afternoon visit indeed seemed to be composed of carefully selected veggies, meats, and dairy products. By the modest standards established by soup ’n’ sandwich shops, lunch proved satisfying enough. But the age-old debate did arise: Is dining out worth the bother when the diner can make practically everything on the menu with his or her own clumsy little hands?

Chef’s Bistro is less tucked away than folded inside a nondescript strip mall off a slightly depressing stretch of West Division Street in Arlington. Inside, the walls were decked with sentimental illustrations of white-hatted, mustachioed chefs, and the soundtrack from O Brother, Where Art Thou? lilted and twanged over the speakers. (Perhaps realizing it might be a drag on the domestic ambience, the owners had apparently programmed their c.d. player to skip Ralph Stanley’s a capella version of “O Death.”) A diverse mixture of what appeared to be regulars — seniors and kids, black and white, chatty all — lined up to peer at the day’s specials written in colored marker on a white board. The glass display case beside the register contained a selection of recently baked cookies and brownies. The patrons seemed to be enjoying the bonhomie at least as much as the fare.

The menu at Chef’s Bistro is small, and the items change according to the whims that occur to Chef Paul when he rolls out of bed each morning. The style of quiche du jour was orange-pepper feta, and the dish proved to be one of the more enticing choices. The soft-crusted slice was double the size typically doled out in diners and contained an almost- cheesecake-like filling of soft, mild feta and rectangular strips of orange pepper whose flavor was surprisingly bold. The delight was accompanied by a cup of soup du jour — a steaming, creamy mix of bits of country ham and white bean that could’ve used a more aggressive seasoning. However, one pass with the pepper shaker gave the cup the correct prickly personality.

Chef’s Bistro seems proud of its cranberry chicken salad, which was finely shredded rather than chunked and definitely more of a mayonnaise-based spread than a salad-y preparation. Small halved cranberries gave it a nice fruity-bitter kick, with walnut pieces supplying the earthy crunch. It worked nicely inside a sliced and apparently store-bought croissant.

In terms of presentation, the honey-glazed ham on wheatberry bread with provolone, dijon mustard, and lettuce and tomato screamed “hand-picked ingredients.” The ham had an assertive, yummy pork aroma unusual for a salted and cured meat, the thinly sliced tomatoes were bright red, and the romaine lettuce was spring-green. The wheatberry bread, though, was rather stiff. The herbed potato salad, made of skin-on new potato wedges and a mayo lube, had a nice dill thrill, but the pasta salad — those ubiquitous multi-hued pasta curlicues in savory vinegar — could’ve come from one of those Sam’s-sized barrel containers.

Which begs the question: What, exactly, comes from Chef’s Bistro that can’t be retrieved from a well-stocked home fridge? The quiche is arguably definitive, but even it isn’t elaborate enough to dramatically distinguish the place. The average regular can doubtlessly attest to the flavors and conversations that keep him returning, but the rest of us need a more compelling reason to pull away from the TiVo and face the sunlight.

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