With its great location on the corner of Bedford and Spring, and folding doors that open onto the street, Barrique Bistro & Wine Bar has the sidewalk café thing down. But diners should not be put off by winter's less welcoming façade. There's seriously good food inside.
Executive chef Louis Barresi has created a French-accented menu with splashes of the Mediterranean and touches of Asian. Barrique draws sophisticated, yet relaxed customers.
The most popular dish is the bouillabaisse ($15). The light broth tastes like an orange-zest and saffron-scented sea, and reveals a fisherman's catch of blue-black mussels, little cockles, chunks of sea bass, pink shrimp, white rounds and dusky pink tentacles of calamari. The precision of the kitchen was evident in the tenderness of each bite.
Moules (mussels) are offered five different ways, from traditional Provencal, with white wine and garlic, to Thai-inspired coconut milk and chiles. We went for the mustard cream sauce. The day we tried them, the mussels were plump and juicy and the creamy mustard sauce was rich and indulgent. They are served with hand-cut, crusty frites topped with sea salt.
Salads star here. Over the course of my two visits to Barrique, I've tried four of them. Each was distinct in ingredients and dressings — and each has been properly dressed (coating the leaves without drenching them). The kale Caesar is one of the best raw kale salads I've eaten. Tender baby kale leaves are the key. The octopus salad is another winner, a tender tentacle atop a big, luscious mix of arugula, blood orange, radicchio and whisper-thin rings of fennel ($16). And you can't go wrong with frisée aux lardons, topped with a sunny-side up egg.
Classic French dishes are given the attention they deserve. Steak frites ($28) is a thick, good-sized strip steak, served off-the-bone. It was cooked exactly as ordered — rare, and it was tender beneath the sear (known as the Maillard reaction) from a hot pan. The steak was napped with peppercorn sauce, rich and buttery with truffle flavor — just enough umami taste without being cloying. It was served with tempting sea-salt-and-herb-flecked frîtes.
Roasted organic chicken ($23), plump, moist, and well-seasoned, includes the flavorful thigh as well as the breast, with wing attached. It rested on wilted baby arugula and cherry tomatoes in balsamic dressing. The fingerling potatoes, on the night I tried this dish, were slightly hard. And if over two visits that's the only flaw I found, Barrique is 98 percent.
The fall and winter menu introduces dishes that bring fresh life to those we see on many menus these days. Seared scallops rest on a colorful mélange of corn kernels and orange butternut squash, diced into a precise brunoise. And beneath these textures is creamy polenta.
Short ribs are often served off the bone, and the prolonged cooking so many chefs herald can drain the flavor from the meat. At Barrique they are served off the bone (customers demand it), but the meat, cooked in a rich red wine sauce with cippolini, was moist, retaining the appealing quality of this cut. With each soft forkful of meat I scooped up the sweet parsnip puree beneath.
Barrique is a wine bar, and a new addition to this is a good-sized back room with a bar and high-topped tables. On Wednesdays, after 8 p.m., live jazz plays. Here's where to nibble on small plates, like cassoncini. It's the Italian version of empanadas. The golden brown half-moons of deep fried dough are filled with cheese and chopped greens, served with filmy slices of prosciutto. The light dough is made in-house, with a splash of cachaça, the Brazilian sugar-cane rum. This Brazilian-Italian touch comes from Danny Silver, a partner in the business, who was raised in Brazil by an Italian mother.
Danny's the guy to talk to about wine. He's the former sommelier at A Voce in New York City. Barrique serves 41 wines by the glass. He paired mussels in mustard cream sauce with Comte La Fond Sancerre from the Loire valley, which he described as "elegant and acidic."
Barrique offers prix-fix lunch for $20, a great value, though you may be tempted to order from the regular menu. For dessert, crème brûlée, made in-house, ends the meal in proper French fashion.
Barrique Bistro & Wine Bar
188 Bedford St., Stamford, (203) 357-9526, barriquestamford.com