Food Review: Bistro Two Eighteen brings French cuisine to Birmingham

If you were just walking down 20th St. N. in Birmingham, you might miss Bistro Two Eighteen, a French-inspired restaurant opened in 2011 by Chef Tom Saab. Building 218 sits near the intersection of Third  and 20th, obscured by the beautiful trees of the sidewalk and median. However, once you spot it, it’s hard not to walk inside.

The glow from the large windows draws the random passerby into the bar, a warm and welcoming room of white tile flooring contrasted against the dark brown wood of the counter. Upon seeing the host, you might be escorted into the dining room, a spacious area occupying the second storefront.

The ambiance is a hard factor to ignore in the appeal of Bistro Two Eighteen: the low, warm lighting, the candle-lit tables, an entire wall of exposed brick, the windows looking right onto the street, the French jazz playing over the speakers. Bistro Two Eighteen has no lack of character, nor does it simply conform to the stereotypical furnishings of nicer modern restaurants.

And while we’re on the topic of breaking from the norm, I would be loathe not to mention the staff of the restaurant. Neither overly formal nor awkwardly familiar, the wait staff of Bistro Two Eighteen seems to be schooled in the fine – and somewhat lost – art of serving.

Is it extremely old-fashioned to talk about the “proper etiquette” of waiting tables? Likely so, but it is refreshing to know that your waiter or waitress will smoothly guide your meal in the direction you’d like it to go. They know how each and every dish tastes, how it is made and how to make suggestions to you based on your conversation. They are, simply put, aware of nearly everything. It is indeed rare to have absolute confidence in the skill and tact of your server, but that is what you get at Bistro Two Eighteen.

While I could go on in metaphors or anecdotes ad nauseam, let’s get to the main event: the food.

A small loaf of sliced French bread and butter arrived while I waited on the main course. Though the bread was fairly standard, I mention this detail because of the unique brilliance of the spread. It was whipped butter with thyme and parsley, which may not sound like much, but it created simple perfection in an area of the meal that is rarely noteworthy.

Bistro Two Eighteen has many options, with the menu being different for each day of the week. The beef tenderloin tournedos au poivre, comprised of two medallions of the finest cut of beef, makes for a great choice. The potato gratin that it is served over is delightful. It’s as if mashed potatoes grew up into fine cuisine.

For my entrée, I ordered the duck confit, a traditional French dish generally regarded as one of the nation’s finest. It is prepared by salt curing the duck in house for 24 hours, and then being baked for eight hours. During this process, some of the duck fat is rendered and then spread onto the various parts of the duck. The cooking term confit actually means “to cook in its own fat.”

If you’re like me, you might be thinking, “That sounds a little gross,” or perhaps, “I can see that, but does it actually do anything?” The short answer is yes.

The dish arrived as a duck leg on a modest bed of fingerling potatoes and green beans, surrounded by duck breast slices, all in a red wine and veal demi-glace. The slices of duck surrounding the leg featured a good deal of fat, but if anyone has an aversion to fat on their meat – as I tend to – I would advise getting over it in this instance.

The meat is extremely tender, cooked about medium rare. While the lean part tastes fairly similar to beef, the fat gives the slices the better part of their distinctive flavor. Speaking of flavor, the duck breast slices are good, but they do not compare to the leg meat.

I near speechlessness with this part of the dish, but I’ll see what I can do.

The leg of duck confit is the most savory thing I have ever eaten. The salt-cured meat bursts with flavor without being overwhelmingly salty, as slow-cooked meats often can be. It has a richly mellow flavor that evokes the taste of a roast beef, but with a lightness and texture unlike anything else. The crispy skin crackles alongside the melt-in-your-mouth goodness of the meat. Duck confit tastes homely in a way that makes you feel it is your oldest family recipe, like it is second nature to the very idea of eating. At the same time, it carries enough culinary excellence to be on the menu at most fine French restaurants.

I finished my meal with pear gateau, a sponge cake-like dessert served over thick brandy sauce. The pear flavor was balanced by crème fraîche, a French whip similar to sour cream, but a bit sweeter.

A single patron looking to have three courses with wine at Bistro Two Eighteen should expect to pay in the range of $55-$70. While this is on the high end for college students, it is one of the most cost-effective fine dining experiences in Birmingham, both in terms of quality and quantity.

Whether it be for a birthday party, a nice get-together, a proposal dinner or just a fun night in Birmingham, Bistro Two Eighteen is the perfect place to have a wonderful evening. I give it five out of five stars.

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