March 05, 2003
posted by Nadia

The man behind Lucy’s Hat Shop has recently opened up a French/Belgian bistro-ish affair called Loie on 19th St., just north of Rittenhouse Square. We’d passed by it a few times while walking the dog in the evening, and were surprised to see what appeared to be a bouncer outside, and all sorts of black-clad hipsters going in. It turns out that, after normal dinner hours, Loie shifts into DJ/dance mode and is a pretty hot spot for folks who like that sort of thing. We were initially disappointed – we had been hoping for nice, authentic bistro fare, and seriously doubted whether we’d find it at a place that doubled as a nightclub. Apparently, we were wrong. Carl’s mom stopped by Philly on her way to Virginia, and took us to Loie for dinner – it turns out that she knows the owner’s uncle, or something to that effect. After dinner, we all realized that perhaps it is possible for a restaurant to succeed food-wise when its alter ego is a happening nightspot.

The décor at Loie is pretty cool: in addition to the predictable Toulouse-Lautrec-type posters, they’ve got what look like custom-made banquettes covered in a patterned velvet, with Mackintosh-esque flowers and vines creeping up the backs. The front area, near the bar, offers seating in the form of stout, suede-covered cubes, which Carl (who actually tried to sit on one) suggested came straight out of the Trading Spaces workshop. There’s a subtle blue-green theme going on at Loie, first in a long bluish glass window stretching the length of the kitchen, and more impressively in the fantastic chandelier hovering above the bar. I can only describe it as this awesome silvery tentacled organic-looking shape with aqua-colored lights. Next time, I’ll take a picture.

I was surprised when we got the menu at how refreshingly traditional it was. It seems that every “classic bistro” these days offers a couple of dishes that are way outside the ballpark – they practically lead you to believe that ancho chile powder and wasabi are traditional French flavorings. In addition to the standard menu featuring items like salad lyonnaise, steak frites, mussels, and roasted chicken, there was a listed special for every day, including brandade (Wednesday), duck confit, bouillebaise, and cassoulet. This, of course, means we will have to return once a week until we run through all the specials ... mmm.

Of our appetizers, Fleet’s was by far the best. It was a spinach salad with roasted beets, goat cheese, and walnuts, which is a pretty standard restaurant salad and usually turns out to be just what you expect, nothing more. But this was the first time I’ve ever been truly impressed by a salad. It was presented exactly as described, but tasted just extraordinary, far beyond the sum of its parts. I think what brought it all together so well may have been the dressing, which was peppery and delicious and I’m frustrated because I can’t for the life of me figure out what was in it. Please find out.

I ordered the salad lyonnaise – (purportedly) warm frisee with applewood-smoked bacon and a poached egg. What I got was an OK salad, but not nearly as good as it could have been. The dressing, which should be warm (to wilt the salad slightly) and made with drippings from the lardon, was cool and overly vinaigery. Consequently, the frisee did not wilt, the dressing didn’t go, the bacon seemed like an afterthought, and I was disappointed. Carl’s mussels, on the other hand, were very nice – it seemed like a standard tomato-based recipe, but the mussels themselves were very large and really fresh. Plus, they were served with fries that I thought rivaled the ones at Monk’s.

As a main course, Carl ordered a special of striped bass over parmesan risotto with a creamy chive sauce. The fish was quite nice, but the highlight of the dish was, surprisingly, the parmesan risotto. It was intensely flavored, pungent and creamy, and tasted much more complex than simply risotto mixed with parmesan. On the walk home, we wondered if we could reproduce it on our own, but couldn’t even think of how to begin. The only idea we could come up with was the possibility of making a parmesan rind “stock” to flavor the risotto. We’ll let you know if this ever pans out.

Fleet ordered monkfish over a lemon asparagus risotto, which was good, but a bit strong on the lemon and weak on the asparagus. I ordered the basic steak frites, but the waiter mistakenly served me the filet mignon, a more expensive (but presumably correspondingly yummier) dish. While I can’t complain much about getting a better steak than I asked for, it wasn’t what I ordered – so the waiter offered to comp my dessert, which I though was very nice. The filet mignon itself was gorgeous and stunningly tender, and cooked to a perfect medium/medium rare. It was served with a green peppercorn sauce, sautéed spinach, and the aforementioned fries.

Finally, we ordered two desserts – an apple tart and a lemon custard tart. Both looked like they came straight out of Maury Rubin’s “Book of Tarts” – perfect right-angled corners, probably made in a flan ring. The lemon tart (served with raspberry sauce) reminded me very much of the lemon tarts we made recently. The apple tart, which was supposed to come with vanilla ice cream, came with chocolate-hazelnut ice cream instead, which really overpowered the apple flavor. But this ice cream itself was delectable, and would be a perfect dessert on its own.

Conclusion: Overall, the food was great. The beet and spinach salad was perfect, the parmesan risotto was stunning, and the filet mignon was the kind of thing I usually only dream about. Whether or not it’s a good idea for Loie to double as a nightclub is still up in the air. But while Carl and I don’t plan on going there for dancing and DJ’s, I’m sure that we’ll return for the food.