Our first impression of Bistro 19 was that it was not unlike an A student who, in his zeal to score 100 percent on every exam, puts his individual creativity on ice. Everything seemed perfectly keyed to a formula for contemporary American dining: name incorporating a numeral (state Route 19 runs past the front door); minimalist décor dominated by dark woodgrain; martini menu; and food featuring careful Asian, French and Southwestern touches.
But it quickly became clear that this hasty assessment was most unfair. Familiar as Bistro 19 appeared on its surface, it distinguished itself in every way from its competition. By the end of our meal, it had pulled far ahead of the numeral-named, martini-pouring, contemporary-American pack.
Our first clue that Bistro 19 was much more than met the eye was the clientele. Despite the cosmopolitan ambience created by the dark wood, low light and white tablecloths, our fellow patrons' mix of black dresses and blue jeans told us this was more a neighborhood gathering place than a showplace for seeing and being seen. People seemed, quite simply, comfortable here.
Next, from a menu that includes a broad range of surf and turf, pastas and poultry, we ordered appetizers that set a high bar for the rest of our meal. If variations on the themes of pot-stickers and flatbread are de rigueur in most contemporary American restaurants, Bistro 19's demonstrated that, clearly, its kitchen knows how to renew what made these dishes so exciting in the first place.
The pot-sticker duo packed a lot of flavor into four dumplings, two each of mild chicken and slightly spicy pork. They were paired with two dipping sauces: a mildly piquant citrus-habañero pepper glaze Jason thought a bit robust for the chicken but that danced in Angelique's mouth, and a more traditional ginger-soy dressing which perfectly complemented the pork. Both fillings were delightfully gingery, the wrappers substantial but not doughy, with delicious crisp edges.
Duly impressed, we moved eagerly to our next appetizer -- flatbread topped with savory, slightly chewy duck confit, caramelized onions and crumbled bleu cheese. These three bold flavors and textures interacted brilliantly atop the light crust, but the coup de grace was a drizzling of lemon crème fraiche, providing brightness tempered by the richness of the cream.
Filet mignon topped with gorgonzola is a steakhouse favorite, but it was the mushroom compote -- a repurposing of a fruit preparation for savory accent -- that caught Jason's attention. His rare steak was beautifully seared without excess charring, and the gorgonzola was a good match, offering just enough flavor without overwhelming the filet's beguiling beefiness. While the blend of mushrooms was good but not exciting, the port reduction sauce was marvelous at enriching the flavors of the dish without being unctuous. Creamy but somewhat bland whipped potatoes were the only item on the plate that failed to stand out.
Angelique succumbed to a weakness for lobster ravioli and lived to swoon about it. Tender pasta purses contained sweet, succulent shellfish in a velvety medium of herbed cheese, blanketed by a luxurious lobster-sherry béchamel. Wilted spinach and thread-thin, crispy leeks gave the dish vegetal flavor and added up to another textural triumph.
We finished with apple-crumb pie, a dessert that seemed to belie most of the words in its name. Thin slices of apple were present, but the preparation was closer to a turnover, with fluffy puff pastry surrounding the fruit, topped with a light caramel sauce on vanilla ice cream. If whipped cream on the side was gilding the lily, we had no compunctions about cleaning the plate.
Mount Lebanon has been home to several noteworthy restaurants over the years, but Bistro 19 is the first one that seems poised to enter the upper echelon of the region's dining scene. The remarkable thing is that in so doing, it has kept its cozy neighborhood feel.