Restaurant rebirth

Mar 13, 2002 at 12:00 am

Late last year Too Chez (originally Raphael, and later Chez Raphael) reincarnated itself as Too Chez Bistro and debuted a new chef and a new menu. “Upscale casual” is how chef Michael Schmidt characterizes it, with a menu that ranges from hamburgers and pizza to high-end entrées.

The interior, designed by Ron Rea, reflects the melding of the restaurant’s old and new images. There’s lots of carved wood and stately leaded glass lighting fixtures. They contrast with whimsical touches such as pillars and window frames painted in a geometric crazy quilt. Another pillar is painted with a road map of I-275. A statue of Winged Victory of Samothrace adds a classic Greek touch. One night we sat in an elevated area that was vaguely reminiscent of the tropics with comfortable wicker chairs and big leafy plants.

The main room is dominated by a huge arctic mural with friendly polar bears and a white fox. The number “2” is highlighted on the shirts of the waitstaff, the matchboxes, in the menu (as in “2 Day’s Fish Specials”), in the mosaics that punctuate the floor in the entry.

The menu is much like the decor: lots of good stuff without a unifying theme. Hamburgers mingle with port wine reductions and arugula-stuffed trout. Pizzas are topped with duck and chèvre. Despite the name, French dishes do not predominate.

For an appetizer we started with mussels ($8.50), steamed with tomatoes and leeks in a buttery white wine broth. The mussels were excellent; the sauce was so good we asked for a spoon to finish it off.

On another night we had the Jonah crab cake ($9) in a roasted red-pepper coulis, studded with black beans. The fat little crab cake was delicious and free of filler.

I was interested in the hearts of palm salad ($4.75), having recently tried them in Costa Rica. The palms are accompanied by spinach with balsamic vinaigrette. Capers were a surprising addition, adding a pungent, briny flavor.

The house onion soup, with gruyere and Parmesan, was generous with the cheese, but salty. (The waitstaff is friendly and fast; our water glasses were constantly refilled that evening.)

There are some elaborate dishes on the menu. One night I had lemon sole Murat ($20). The delicate white fish was lightly crusted with breadcrumbs and served with a wonderful melange of vegetables: artichoke hearts, spinach, tomatoes, red onions, diced potatoes, mushrooms, all lightly cooked and complemented (again) by capers. Chef Schmidt, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1998, told me he likes the way capers pop in your mouth. I did too.

Another night I had pickerel in a pumpkin seed-herb crust ($22), together with wild rice cakes and green beans, served with a pumpkin bisque. It sounded interesting, but it didn’t compare to that wonderful sole.

Langoustine-saffron pasta ($19) is sauced with white wine, and tossed with tomatoes and slices of braised fennel. The coral-colored langoustines are shelled crawfish, fresh and delicious.

The co-diner ordered braised lamb shank ($16), a generous piece of meat, bones and all. It is not for those who prefer not to think about where meat comes from. But it was falling-off-the-bone tender and came with a wonderful mix of caramelized root vegetables and northern beans.

Although there is an emphasis on fish, the menu also offers chicken, steak, duck, veal and pork, as well as a daily vegetarian special. Something for everyone.

Most of the desserts are in the ultra-rich category. The bread pudding is baked in an individual ceramic torte dish and comes with rum crème anglaise. Chocolate banana crunch is layered with flourless chocolate cake, bourbon-caramel cream and banana chiffon.

There is a full bar (and the crowd over there sounded pretty happy), as well as a glass room storing a multitude of wine bottles, glowing like green and brown jewels.

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Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].