Bistro 936"s move to Fountain Square has worked well for all

When Bistro 936 opened its doors in the location of the original Peter"s almost two years ago, Peter and Trish George had high hopes that their return to Virginia Avenue would add weight and substance to the much-vaunted revival of Fountain Square. In the intervening months, a lot has happened in this historic neighborhood, including the opening of several new restaurants, a number of galleries and a very stylish little wine and cheese shop. The Georges" move back to Peter"s old stomping ground could not have been better timed: The district is improving by the day.

Peter George in the basement

Peter George for many years enjoyed the title enfant terrible of the Indianapolis dining scene. Now well out of his childhood, but still not of an age to be considered a grand old man, George currently occupies that respectable middle period when consolidation and cautious expansion are the order of the day. When the Bistro first opened its doors in November of 2000, it was one of the first of a now significant number of quality restaurants in town to impose rigorous price limits and raise the goalposts on value for money. It"s interesting that several of the city"s more savvy restaurateurs had pretty much the same idea at the same time, and lucky for us that they did. I"m not sure if the Georges and their ilk exactly anticipated the downturn in the economy, but there are doubtless scores of customers who are grateful for their apparent prescience.

A vigorous and vocal advocate of independent restaurants (more of which at a later date), Peter George is fully aware that, in order to compete with the chains, he must consistently outperform them. Chains unfortunately have the advantage of deep pockets, large training budgets and rigorous quality control, all of which ensure that the type of diner who insists on eating the same dish week after week in city after city isn"t going to be disappointed. To generate the same level of consistency at a single location isn"t always easy, but over the past 18 months, during the course of a couple of dozen meals at Bistro 936, I have never, and I repeat that word, never, had cause to complain about the food.

As if that isn"t a glowing enough recommendation, the staff at this restaurant is as helpful, friendly and knowledgeable about the menu as any you"d care to meet. Service has always been a crucial element at George"s establishments, and the folks here operate in a disciplined yet relaxed (if that isn"t too oxymoronic) manner that conveys the impression that everything is under control. That"s a rare thing, these days.

The short and seasonal menu here, expertly guided by Chef Katrina Estes, a Peter"s veteran, makes the most of fresh produce and quality ingredients. Breads, pastas and desserts are all house-made, and the quality is uniformly excellent. For those who don"t like to be surprised or who enjoy the comfort of consistency, the very fine Bistro Chicken ($14.95) and the Bistro Steak Frites ($19.55) are mainstays for most, if not all, of the year.

On a recent visit to Bistro 936, the Divine Ms. M. and I started our meal with another of the menu"s mainstays, the beef carpaccio with black Oregon truffles ($9.95), a bit of an indulgence, especially as you can have the same dish without the truffles for about $3 less. This is an elegant and stylish dish, featuring several distinct islands of paper-thin filet, each dressed with capers, truffles and drizzled with a little truffle oil. A relatively new dish, the mushroom strudel ($6.25) comes as four little puff pastry boats stuffed with an intense mushroom duxelle, flavored with fresh herbs, and redolent of tarragon. Our appetizers were rounded out by a superb ceviche ($5.95), a substantial mound of super-fresh fish and shrimp piled generously atop fresh, crisp and mouthwatering greens. Bright and citrusy, as well as being perfectly seasoned, this was a superb rendition.

From this point, we could have gone on to enjoy a salad or even one of Peter"s signature thin crust pizzas (around $9 to $11, depending on the topping), but probably would not have had room for entrÈes. Although the prices at Bistro 936 are very reasonable, the portions are generous, so one needs to order wisely. We decided to try the seasonal lake (Michigan, I believe) whitefish ($18.95) and the veal linguini ($17.75). The former dish consisted of two good-sized fillets of delightfully fresh whitefish, seared and lightly roasted to a moist perfection. Served simply with asparagus, white grapes and a delicate emulsion that included some red grapes, the emphasis of this dish lies distinctly in the freshness of its ingredients. The fish, slightly pink from the red grape skins (I assume) had a slightly sweet quality, especially when dipped in a little sauce. Combined with the gentle acidity of the white grapes, it became a textbook example of contrasting and complementary flavors and textures. Bravo is about all I can say. I could eat this dish every day.

The veal linguini is an equally impressive dish, assuming, that is, that your personal beliefs permit you to eat veal. The house-made linguini, a big, steaming plate of them, were, needless to say, impeccably cooked, and sauced generously with creamy gorgonzola, sundried red peppers, thin slices of veal and plenty of fresh thyme. This is a rich dish, and the two of us came nowhere close to finishing it, but we had to leave room for at least a taste of dessert. The so-called lemon cheesecake didn"t seem to me to be a cheesecake at all, more like an ethereal lemon curd on top of a light cookie base. The texture, firm, but on the verge of being runny, was impeccable, as was the delicate balance of lemon and sugar. Great stuff!

Bistro 936 offers a well-chosen list of 50 wines under $50. There are many great buys under $30, and several around $20, so you can drink very well and not break the bank. There are usually several good selections by the glass, and, mercifully, you won"t find too many big-name brands here. There are usually a couple of artisanal beers on tap, and a good selection by the bottle. Although the restaurant does not serve spirits, it does boast one of the coolest bars in town in the original 19th century cellar. And, speaking of value, the Bistro offers a ridiculously cheap dinner on Tuesdays: a small filet with fries, a salad and a crËme brulÈe for just $12.95. The restaurant now accepts reservations as well, which are strongly recommended on the weekend.


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