Pushing the Boundaries
A friend of mine has a saying: “Fusion means confusion.”
She breaks it out any time I suggest trying out a new fusion restaurant, and often for good reason. Unless you are a star chef, the chances of seamlessly blending cultures, cuisines and flavor profiles into anything resembling a coherent statement are slim. So when she looked at the menu for Bistro 41 and saw Asian influences in close proximity to those from the Caribbean and Europe, apprehension set in.
But as Bistro 41 has shown under a run of chefs, an eclectic menu full of global shout-outs need not be as annoying as your name-dropping friend from college. The idea is less fusion and more a menu without boundaries. And the result is something slightly greater than the sum of its parts.
When Bistro 41 got its start in the mid-’90s it was a little more, well, bistro, with a menu full of salads, quiches, roasted chicken and oak-grilled salmon. Over time it has evolved into more of a culinary tour. It’s a restaurant where an appetizer of crispy-fried spring rolls ($11), with a delightful honey ginger dressing with hints of thyme in the background, can flow without much effort into a light Mediterranean salad ($11) and then a juicy pork mojo ($25), which uses a surprisingly potent chipotle crème fraîche to cut the slightly sour citrus of the marinade.
Despite its disparate influences, the dinner menu is tight, with a half-dozen appetizers and seven entrees. It includes some ubiquitous items—classic wedge ($12) and Caesar ($11) salads and a delightful bread pudding ($8). But instead of staid and boring, the classics are often twisted slightly. The calamari ($13) is given an Asian flair with stir-fried veggies, sweet chili sauce and served in a wonton bowl. Roasted chicken ($18) gets the island treatment with black beans and pineapple salsa.
Driving up to the Bell Tower Shops, where Bistro shares an avenue with DaRuMa, you see the seeds that led to the development of Mercato. High-end shopping, complementary restaurants and a movie theater all on one sprawling campus certainly create a good draw.
While Mercato has more polish, it is lacking a restaurant like Bistro 41 that doesn’t follow a slick corporate playbook. The interior design is of the nondescript variety, a welcome change from modern restaurant interiors that need to tell you what kind of food they serve by the choice of fixtures.
There are certainly flubs in the menu. The burnt-tasting French onion soup ($6) seems to serve no purpose other than as a reminder of the restaurant’s past. And the flat iron steak came out slightly overcooked and a little overpowered by a highly acidic chimichurri sauce.
But we finished dinner with a most fantastic spin on the standard chocolate lava cake ($10). The restaurant staple substituted its molten core for a cool ball of Stilton bleu cheese. Chocolate and cheese isn’t a new pairing. But this juxtaposition of flavors and temperatures was taste bud-opening. It’s a relatively simple construction, but local restaurants don’t often push beyond simple textural contrasts.
In a dining landscape that plays it safe, always going for known qualities rather than untamed frontiers, it’s certainly heartening to see a chef pushing the boundaries ever-so-slightly.
13499 U.S. 41 S., Suite 143, Fort Myers (in Bell Tower Shops); 466-4141, bistro41.com. Open 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Reservations recommended. Credit cards accepted. Handicapped accessible.