Seeking comfort in uncertain times means different things to different people. But for many, sharing a home-style meal with family and friends can be just the right medicine. Whether eaten at home, at a friend's house or at a local bistro, comfort foods are making a comeback.
Top chefs nationwide are recreating recipes to reflect the simplicity of home-style cooking—fresh, seasonal ingredients blended creatively with flavorful herbs into satisfying dishes—with European bistro-style flair. In fact, Bon Appetit has named bistro cuisine the year's hot new restaurant trend.
Retailers can tap into the trend with deli menu selections. Offering wholesome foods for take-out from the neighborhood grocery harks back to the origin of bistro style.
Consider that American bistro cuisine has roots in traditional French bistros, where home-style cooking in quaint, family-run neighborhood venues is a long-standing custom. But simple, comfort foods from all around the globe, particularly Asia, India and the Mediterranean, are also inspiration for bistro menus—and deli menus—in the United States.
New twists on old favorites are the highlight of this country's bistro fare, such as mashed potatoes mixed with celery root and topped with a balsamic reduction, or lasagna made with polenta and pesto instead of pasta and red sauce.
Many bistro menus also make French foods more accessible with Provence dishes, where staple ingredients include extra-virgin olive oil, garlic and herbs de Provence, a combination of rosemary, basil, marjoram, sage, fennel seed, savory, lavender and thyme.
"I think American chefs have succeeded with the bistro concept by keeping its originality of a neighborhood place where the food is original, simple and affordable," says Louis Petit, a French native and chef who moved to the United States in 1975 to open a French restaurant in Little Rock, Ark. "It's very close to what it is in France now, but the American chefs are better than some of the French, I think."
Petit's first restaurant, Jacques & Susanne, was a formal and expensive French dining experience, catering to an elite clientele. But the evolving demand for more casual dining inspired the chef to scale down his menu, presentation and prices, resulting in successful bistro-style establishments.
"Formality is a way of the past," Petit says. "People don't want to have to get dressed [up] to dine out. Today, I think people want to meet somewhere that's casual and close to home—a quaint atmosphere with unique choices, simplicity and quality. In a sense, it's like eating at a friend's house."
By offering unique bistro fare at the neighborhood market, retailers enable their customers to indulge in convenient comfort food for family meals or for entertaining.
Caprial Pence, author of Caprial's Bistro Style Cuisine (Ten Speed Press, 1998), has crafted her career around bistro foods. She is the author of seven cookbooks featuring bistro-style recipes, including those from her Portland, Ore.-based restaurant, Caprial's Bistro. Pence trained at the Culinary Institute of America where she met her husband, John, and says they both were tired of the fuss and "frou-frou" presentation of fine dining.
"Our idea was inspired by the European bistro. There are trattorias in Italy, bistros in France. Every country has its own idea of a restaurant that is more casual, a little more approachable and down-to-earth."
Approachable and down-to-earth is how she defines bistro foods as well.
"In a lot of ways, it is comforting and that is why it's the trend now," she says. "Anytime there's a big tragedy [like Sept. 11], people tend to go homeward."
Pence says that at her bistro, roasted vegetable and mushroom stock add a depth of flavor to numerous recipes, lending satisfying, home-style tastes. Typical bistro-style ingredients, Pence says, also include butter, cheeses and starchy foods, such as rice, pasta and risotto. But bistro fare has a healthy side, too. There are plenty of recipes that call for lots of garlic and olive oil, as well dishes that focus on fresh, seasonal produce or local products, such as the fish and seafood she finds in the Northwest.
If anything is strikingly different about American bistro fare, it's the healthier, vegetarian-style recipes. "If you went to France, you'd probably be hard-pressed to find something vegetarian," says Pence. "Here in Portland, if we don't look at vegetarian entrees and make those available, then we don't have customers. In a lot of ways, that's sort of been a modern-day incorporation into [the bistro] menu; whether it's steak or a vegetarian lasagna, it's still a homey, comforting kind of food."
On her cooking show and in her cookbooks, Pence teaches cooks how to recreate bistro cuisine at home. In homage to the style, she tries to make the process simple.
"A lot of recipes on our show are from the restaurant, yet simplified. I really try to think about the home cook when I write the recipe," she says. "I want people to use the recipes and I don't want them to get frustrated; it took me a long time to think that way as a chef."
Her bistro recipes are creative yet approachable. Vegetarian options include Wild Mushroom Tarte Tatin and combinations such as Savory Pumpkin Cannelloni with Sage Cream Sauce and Zucchini Pancakes with Roasted Corn Relish. She offers unusual coastal features, such as Warm Seafood Mousse with Fennel Salsa and Chilled Pear Curry Mussels, as well as traditional desserts with a twist, such as Poached Ginger Cheesecake and Pecan Pie with Two Chocolates and a Spice Crust.
Seasonal flair is another important consideration of bistro cuisine. A typical bistro menu—whether in Boston or Bordeaux—may feature whatever is fresh and in season at the local market or from local growers.
"Seasons are a big influence on our cuisine," Pence says. "We change our menu every month and specials change every day. For us, the regional influence is a whim."
Many retailers are already marketing deli options based on local and seasonal ingredients. Incorporating this approach with bistro-style offerings combines two trends that currently appeal to shoppers.
Although the recipes are crucial to bistro cuisine's increasing popularity, a down-home atmosphere is equally important.
One of Petit's popular bistros in Little Rock, Café Prego, has been around for nine years, in a small, turn-of-the-century bungalow located in the upscale Heights neighborhood. He recently renovated the garage in back to open up more seating for his growing clientele. "Our success has been due to our ability to read what people want. The more casual, neighborhood places are successful now."
If customers aren't cooking at home, they seem to be craving the laid-back atmosphere of home when they dine out and appreciate the mom-and-pop feel of neighborhood bistros. Natural products retailers can take advantage of this trend and market bistro-style fare to shoppers in cafes and home meal replacement departments. And for shoppers who cook and want to jazz up their own recipes with bistro-style flair, helpful tips and demonstrations showcasing the best of bistro cooking is the ticket to creating your customers' favorite home away from home.
Catherine S. Gregory is a freelance food writer based in Louisville, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 4/p. 38, 40