Bluestem Bar & Table thrives on organic fare
It may seem like a distant memory now, but mere months ago we were all in a tizz over rumors that French Meadow Bakery, home of the sprouted-grain tortilla chip and the site of many a kiss-and-make-up organic brunch, had bought its next-door neighbor, the CC Club, home of the double full-sleeve tattoo and the site of many a "might-as-well-make-it-a-pitcher" debaucherous night. Calls put in to the CC Club asking if they would confirm or deny its sale elicited only trollish answers ("No, French Meadow didn't buy us — McDonald's did. We're a McDonald's now!"), and reps from French Meadow were vague at best. It was a brief but panic-inducing time. A purchase agreement was eventually reached that left the CC Club unchanged, at least for now, and allowed the French Meadow to secure parking for its guests — a list-topping concern for the bakery and cafe, especially as it announced plans for expansion.
The focus quickly shifted, the people of Whittier breathed a collective sigh of relief, and Bluestem Bar & Table, French Meadow's new wine bar, quietly opened in mid-June. With a separate entrance at the back of the building, its own small patio, and a coolly refined, smooth-edged interior, the serene space has that attached-but-divided thing that so many restaurants seem to be going for these days (see Cossetta's, Union, Borough, Marin, etc.). Though craft beer and brewery taprooms have been hogging the beverage attention for the last few years, we've experienced a recent and delightful rash of new wine bars too. With the overhaul of Spill the Wine, the impressive debut of Terzo, and now Bluestem Bar & Table, we're seeing wine bars come out of the tucked-away neighborhoods and move into the limelight.
But does Bluestem do enough to distinguish itself from the others and from French Meadow itself? As far as the wine list goes, I'd say yes, though I had to do some independent research to find out what guided and unified the selection. At first blush, it seemed they were going for the risky "more is more" approach — wines from all over Europe, South America, the American West Coast, and one lone bottle from Lebanon. Not once on any visit did a server point this out, but the majority of wines served at Bluestem are either vegan, organic, sustainable, or biodynamic, a conscientious decision by owner Lynn Gordon to mirror French Meadow's well-established reputation for using responsibly sourced products. Why not underline that a little more? There is a key on the menu denoting wines that fall into these categories, but that is easy to miss when there's so much to look at and consider. That said, flights were keenly curated and all-around intriguing, especially the "Summer Meadow," which featured three Japanese sakes.
While the wine list takes a lot of risks, the dinner menu, made up of a few small plates, salads, sandwiches, and a handful of modestly sized entrees, mostly plays it safe. Beets paired with goat cheese? Check. Bleu cheese and apples? Yes. Smoked salmon and cream cheese? Indeed. Duck with plain ol' potatoes and asparagus? It's there (and it's rare, temperature-wise). But what they lack in risk-taking they make up for in modern diet makeovers of classic comfort dishes. Take, for example, the cornmeal fried chicken served with an organic sweet-corn waffle. Though the waffle itself was a little dense, the breading on the meat was light, the chicken juicy, and the addition of creme fraiche, sweet and spicy pink peppercorn syrup, and smoky hot sauce on top nailed the essence of the dish — and it was all 100 percent gluten-free.
Lovely fish tacos get a lightened-up (and again, gluten-free) treatment by blackening instead of deep-frying the tilapia and using corn tortillas to bundle up the fish, cilantro slaw, and lime crema. The Mediterranean take on a roast chicken dinner also went over well, with an abundance of flavor from the harissa used to marinate the bird and the preserved lemon that infused the tender pearls of Israeli cous cous. Fish dishes were handled and presented (and they tasted) better than any of the "redder" meat ones. A bountiful and beautiful plate of skin-on, flaky seared trout was satisfying and simple with chunky, garlicky romesco sauce and roasted, buttered green-top carrots and radishes. God bless a cooked radish.
Far from healthy but absolutely one of the most crowd-pleasing dishes was the pimento cheese croquettes. Pimento cheese is a Southern invention and not often seen on menus north of the Mason-Dixon, at least not since the '70s, but this is a real State Fair way to serve it. Sharp cheddar, pimentos, and a mix of cream cheese and mayo are all rolled into a cheese ball-like structure, rolled in Panko breadcrumbs, and fried golden. Breaking into one is as nostalgic and sensational as poking a chicken Kiev and letting the butter ooze out all over. The only thing I didn't like about the dish was the bitter and off-pitch watercress salsa verde that came with it. Something like a hot pepper jelly would go better with the Southern cocktail-party appetizer theme.
Bluestem's dessert list is nearly as long as the main menu and, since this place is attached to one of the best bakeries in town, the final course is also the most important. Go for the divine and decadent Milky Way tart, with crumbly crust and layers of chocolate and caramel; classic pink buttercream-frosted cake that you won't believe is gluten-free; a slice of vegan red velvet cake colored with beets; or a fresh vanilla pastry cream-filled tart with itty-bitty melon balls and whole raspberries. You really can't go wrong.
On the whole, Bluestem's food is on the more affordable end of the spectrum than that at other wine bars. Small plates are great if you want to taste a lot of dishes and share things, but sometimes that excitement gets the best of you and your bill can creep up. Since Bluestem focuses more on the entree and sandwich offerings, you could easily be full and happy with a plate of trout romesco or a fresh, crunchy Thai chicken sandwich and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc (only $5 during happy hour) for right around $20.
While service was competent, I wish they had given more of the "this-is-what-we're-about" spiel. This seems an ideal place to make suggestions for wine pairings, but whenever we asked questions we got the same recitation of oenophilic vocabulary words describing each one: "It's dry but not too dry," and "that's pretty fruity," and, on more than one occasion, "I've never tried that one." I appreciate honesty and transparency, but there is a certain expectation that comes with wine-bar dining. It doesn't have to be pretentious, but a little education, especially where things like biodynamic wines are concerned, helps to demonstrate the value of your concept.
Bluestem manages to fit with its parent company's image and still set itself apart from other wine bars in the area. As far as I know there is not another place to get a gorgeous, gluten-free chocolate-covered lingonberry torte, a scoop of vegan frozen custard (made with soy milk), and a glass of sustainably produced Lambrusco, and there is certainly an appreciative and ever-increasing audience for that in these parts.
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