For Lovers... of Food
By Debra Cornwell
"We'll always have Paris." Rick to Ilsa, Casablanca.
For decades, over a century, really, lovers of food, fashion, art, and, yes, love have sought the romance and passion of Paris. Strolls along the Seine River, huddling close in a café over a demitasse, and toasting le tout Paris with a saucer of champagne are part of the City of Light's seduction.
Shepherdstown has its own brand of earthy seduction with biking along the Potomac River, gatherings in pubs and coffee houses, and celebrations of performing and visual arts throughout the year. Lovers of French epicurean delights even have a maison in Shepherdstown to please the palate.
Deborah Tucker is the propriétaire of Bistro 112, her grand second act after a successful career in corporate communications. Joined by Chef Kelly Fitzgerald, Bistro 112 has seduced the tastes of patrons for two years.
With nothing more than a love and well-traveled knowledge of France and French food, her well-honed business skills, and a dose of joie de la vie, Tucker purchased the previous restaurant at this site on German Street and set out to create an authentic Paris vibe and taste this side of the Atlantic. "I wanted three things to start," she remembers, "great bread, superb pepper steak (l'entrecote au poivre) and awesome fries (pommels frites) served the Parisian way in a cone." It's that and so much more.
Guests are greeted by Tucker's French soundtrack which includes Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier as well as more contemporary artists. The music is soft and lovely and is used to transport and authenticate the experience. French fabrics and the close-in tables create intimacy with one's dining partners or with the whole room should one engage. The air is perfumed with wine, garlic, and herbs.
Tucker, a native Washingtonian and obvious people person, welcomes guests warmly and aptly orchestrates the dance of diners, servers, and food preparation. "This is a great space with a good soul," she says of her bistro. "My father knew the original founder of the Yellow Brick so I came to know Shepherdstown which is really a very cosmopolitan place. It's a foodie town, and we've been well-received by locals and visitors alike."
Years ago in her own salad days, Tucker worked as a server and lived in Paris for a time. She recalls those days fondly, and now that she is able to pursue her passion for French food and her love of people, it is to everyone's benefit. The story of Bistro 112, is that of change, then. Tucker advertised for a chef, and the one who was up to the job was ready for a change himself. Fitzgerald grew up in Pennsylvania with a dairyman as a grandfather.
Eventually, he worked in Washington when all the great kitchens were run by French chefs. When he saw the ad, he thought, "Why not?" "I grew up churning butter in the morning and putting it on fresh ears of corn in the afternoon. Here, it is not much different. I drive past orchards and can smell the apples and peaches. We have a vegetable and mushroom supplier who texts me a picture of the find of the day, and it is on the Bistro 112 table that night." It sounds like a happy marriage of technology and good relationships resulting in great food.
Tucker has cultivated and mentored the staff who are not only well-trained in the fine art of service, but are educated and accomplished. My server, Hanna Mongold, is a recent graduate of Shepherd University. Her fictional prose gained her acceptance into graduate school at American University this fall. She exemplified the service of Bistro 112--excellent and proper but never pretentious. "My staff is smart, as in keen, not sassy. They are personable but never intrusive. They each wear all black, but they don't wear it the same way--they're creative," says Tucker.
Al fresco dining is offered during the warmer months in a charming garden lined with stone raised beds and attractive plantings. The garden is one of the features on this year's Shepherdstown Back Alley Garden Tour & Tea on May 18th and 19th. In its thirteenth year, the fundraiser for the Shepherdstown Community Club bills itself as "not your garden variety garden tour" and includes a self-guided walking tours of public and private gardens and a tea. The bistro also hosts live music, usually Brazilian, on Saturday nights.
Our small dinner party thoroughly enjoyed the food and ambiance, and we worked our way through the menu with joyous results. Les moules--mussels in a creamy garlic wine sauce were served with pommes frites. A traditional French dish that pays homage to the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the generous bowl of mussels is one of the most popular dishes on the menu. Perfectly plumped mussels in a sauce so delectable, one must take home any remaining sauce for the next day's pasta lunch. The soy bean oil, double-cooked French fries are perfectly seasoned, and it is perfectly acceptable to dip the fries into the sauce if one is so inclined. As a decadent side dish or a child's entree, the mac and cheese is divine.
Made to order from scratch, the comfort food has a sprinkle of truffle oil, cream, hand-grated fine cheddar and a sprinkling of panko crumbs on top for a crispy crust. "We don't bulk out or batch cook," the chef states proudly, "which means we cook less food at once but more often. Everything is made-to-order."
The beet salade was no ordinary red beet assemblage but a combination of golden beets and candy stripe beets that are still earthy but with a sweet, mild taste when roasted. Dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette, the bountiful salad is garnished with goat cheese (chevre), lightly candied walnuts and tart Granny Smith apples on a bed of organic mesclun and romaine. The perfect bite is a bit of apple, walnut, and beet at once. Fitzgerald hinted at two new salads on the menu--a farm salade with avocados, bacon, cucumber, eggs and bleu cheese with a dijon vinaigrette and a country French chicken salad of poached chicken and herbes de provence.
Bistro 112's signature dish is L'entrecote au poive, a special steak cut between the ribs at the last rib, and translates to steak served with a peppercorn sauce. The cut is also available champignon--with onions and mushrooms. An exceptional value is the prix fixed bistro meal of salade maison, L'entrecote with either roasted potatoes or pommes frites, and the dessert du jour. Do not be afraid of the creamy sauce. Chef Fitzgerald's delicate touch is evident in preparation--a perfectly grilled and sliced steak with a dash of cream. He assures, "I cook in the spa-style with an awareness of health. The cream is the minimal amount and always the right portion. With proper handling and cooking, only a small amount is needed for flavor." The roasted potato medley on the day I dined there included Yukon golds, red and purple potatoes.
Regular readers of Featured Eats know that I love duck. I've been delighted to find it on the menu at three restaurants in the Eastern Panhandle- -each with its own unique preparation. Bistro 112's take is the most unique with amazing results. The cinnamon espresso dry rub on the pan roasted duck lends a hint of spicy latte to the flavor. The vegetable couscous is light and bright with diced fresh onion, cucumber, tomato, lemon and spices. The duck is also accompanied by a red pear and raisin chutney.
Our sweet ending was a great tart that looked as beautiful as it tasted. Filled with orange-scented pastry cream, it was topped with fresh raspberries and brushed with a brandied apricot glaze. These are gorgeous classic tarts and depending on the chef's whim and larder, could be pear, apple, banana, or blueberry.
Tucker has created a salon in the spirit of, if not exactly like, George Sand, the pseudonym of the nineteenth-century novelist who was known for her gatherings. One of my favorite things is Tucker's vintage, signed Lanvin dress on display upstairs. Once belonging to her grandmother, the dress reveals the sumptuousness of French couture in its silk velvet, hand beading, exquisite cut, luxurious lining, and tight, tiny hand-sewn stitches. When referring to Bistro 112 bon appétit seems too obvious. J'adore, yes, that's it, j'adore.