It was a Tuesday night, and Sean and I were dressed down after an afternoon of house hunting. As we headed down Washington Road, I was thinking about dinner, but there wasn’t much at home. “I could make Manwich?” I said half-heartedly.
Even as I asked the question, I was answering it with a head shake. Both of us were in the mood for someplace nice where we could sit down, dream and go over our plans for a new house. Sheehan’s and Taste were both out since they are open from Wednesday through Saturday only. “What about Bistro 491?” I suggested.
Sean immediately turned to head that way. The Surrey Center “newbie” opened in 1999 alongside stalwarts French Market Grille and Calvert’s to offer another fine dining experience for Augustans. We hadn’t been in years but had talked about Bistro recently, so we decided to try it, casual dress and all.
As we pulled in, we saw a man in khakis and a windbreaker – just what Sean had on – walking in. And when we went inside, the dress code wasn’t an issue. The overall look was casual, but pressed, and my dress and scarf fit right in. (The Web site concurs: “Our dress code is business casual, but hey, jeans are okay too.”)
We were whisked to a white, cloth-covered table in the center of the restaurant. Although the lighting is subdued, we still had a good view of the dark paneled walls, mirrors, elegant sconces and a festive red, gold and black mural of – what else – a restaurant, filled with ladies in low-cut dresses and men in top hats.
Our waiter was Andrew, and he immediately put us at ease, bringing two bottles of tap water for the table and bringing our bread plates forward as he set down a basket filled with a variety of multi-grain and savory rolls.
The menu, which changes regularly, was fairly brief, presented in a heavy book on beautiful cream paper: There were nine small plates, including soups and appetizers to share, such as prime beef carpaccio and crispy fried oysters with green tomatoes ($7 to $14); three salads (about $9); and nine land and sea entrees, including three fish options, beef, pork, lamb and chicken (from $21 to $32).
I decided to order a salad and small plate for my meal, starting with the baby spinach salad followed by the North Carolina fresh lump crabcakes. Sean started with the baby iceberg wedge, with an entrée of the red wine braised kosher beef short ribs.
“We also have oysters on the half shell at $2 each,” reminded Andrew. Sean, who knows my love for raw oysters, caught my eye and ordered two.
The salads came first. Sean’s iceberg lettuce was a burst of cool crispness, rich with chewy browned bacon, tangy dressing and a creamy, but tart blue cheese. It was a strong and bracing salad, to say the least! Sean was in blue cheese heaven – and said several times that this was the best blue cheese he’d ever tasted.
I have to admit that I preferred Sean’s over my own salad, which was good in its own right: dense spinach leaves (you could tell they were bursting with nutrition), sweet and crunchy pecans, more blue cheese and a similar but slightly more vinegary dressing, which brought tears to my eyes because of the tartness. But what helped it come back was a transcendent bruschetta of onion jam and blue cheese, quickly broiled, which topped the salad; the two ingredients were transformed, the scent and taste of them rich and heady and delicious.
We told Andrew so, and he said, a little conspiratorially, “Do you want another one? I know someone who works here.” Of course! – and moments later Sean and I were sharing a second bite.
The oysters came next – and it was my turn to talk in superlatives. We’ve eaten fresh oysters in San Francisco, New York and Hilton Head, flown in from all across the country – and these oysters beat them all. They had a crisp, clean salinity that was only enhanced with a squirt of lemon and a little cocktail sauce (I ignored the red wine vinegar that was also offered) – and tasted unbelievably fresh, which is so important in a raw oyster. They were perfectly chilled too, on their bed of crushed ice, garnished graphically with a sprig of black seaweed. I loved them so much that when Andrew came back around, we ordered two more as our “early dessert.”
Before he came with our entrees, Andrew whisked our plates away and quickly cleared Sean’s side with a crumber. “I’m messy,” said Sean with a laugh. “No, no,” said Andrew. “It was me, I did it when I put the food down.” He paused, then looked at me with a grin. “Although, you’re married, so you would already know if he’s messy or not.”
We had a good laugh at that, and then our entrees came. My two crabcakes were arranged on a pool of creamy sauce with fresh corn kernels and spinach – and were a good size for a small plate. I took a bite and was impressed that the crabcake was pure crab – the shreds of meat lightly bound together. It had a crispy coating and moist interior, and the savory flavor was enhanced by the creamy sauce and sweet corn. It was like a taste of summer with the rich sauce adding a fall flair.
Sean urged me to take a bite of his short ribs next. It melted in my mouth – so tender, rich and brown, with a slightly Asian flavor. He shared his sides, too: Scalloped potatoes can sometimes be overwhelmed with cheese, but this had restraint, allowing the flavor of the potatoes to shine through. The spinach was fresh, garlicky and not at all bitter.
We wanted dessert so badly – especially after Andrew explained that the sorbets and ice creams are made fresh on site – but we had already indulged in our oyster “dessert” and were so full. We sat for just a few minutes more, enjoying the laughter around us.
The feel of Bistro 491 is different since we first came about 10 years ago – then, it was quiet, a little stiff, a little formal. It’s changed for the better. And what a special treat to have a lovely dinner on a random Tuesday night.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: Bistro 491, 491 Highland Ave., Surrey Center
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
SECOND HELPING: (706) 738-6491, bistro491.com or find them on Facebook