Tuesday, January 25, 2000

Deep purple

Posted on Tue, Jan 25, 2000 at 4:00 AM

What are the perils of opening a Continental restaurant in Casselberry? Just ask Bernhard Schwab, owner of the new Aubergine Bistro, in Butler Plaza.

"People stick their heads in the door and say, 'You got any burgers?'" Schwab says. It doesn't help that there's a pool hall next door. "I show them what I have in sandwiches, like the grilled portobello sandwiches. I tell them it's a lot healthier."

Sometimes it convinces them to stick around. Sometimes not. But those who stay are often drawn back again and again, for good reason. Schwab, formerly the chef at Le Cordon Bleu, Nicole St. Pierre and Bistro Cappuccino, has assembled a small but relatively ambitious menu of things like fillet of sirloin with gorgonzola port-wine sauce ($17) and Mediterranean chicken with tomato coulis and marinated goat cheese ($14). The seafood menu includes such offerings as Atlantic salmon steamed with Chinese bok choy, scallions and peppers ($15).

"Aubergine" is the French word for eggplant, which turns out nicely in such dishes as the "Aubergine Napoleon" appetizer ($7), a neat stack of grilled eggplant and tomato slices, topped with melted goat cheese and pesto. The flavors are simple and invigorating.

Grilled yellowfin tuna ($16) becomes more interesting when it's lavishly infused with a "pesto" of roasted pecans and sun-dried red peppers. The pesto is a light complement to the stronger flavors of the tuna.

The "pasta fruit de mer" ($14) entree features an array of catch-of-the-day seafood – scallops, shrimp, salmon, grouper and more – served over vermicelli pasta. The dish gets its subtle appeal from the addition of Riesling wine in the garlic-herb sauce.

There is no formal dessert menu – Schwab switches the offerings around daily to keep the regulars guessing. But a couple of favorites keep popping up: crème brûlée, French apple torte and white-chocolate sun-dried cranberry bread pudding. During our visit we had a creamy cinnamon parfait ($5) speckled with poppyseeds that resembled spicy little chocolate chips. If you're conditioned to prefer oversized, gooey desserts, this one would require some adjustments in your expectations. But ultimately we liked its restraint and simplicity.

Aubergine Bistro succeeds partially on the strength of its small size: The dining area seats just 35. The interior, while genteel, has a generic quality – there's nothing exciting or distinctive in the way of art or music. Much more personality comes through in the service; the staff members are a welcoming bunch. In such an intimate setting, service and food loom large – and on both counts, Aubergine Bistro is on the right track.


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