Restaurant Review: Yolande’s Bistro & Crêperie, New Haven
I do not “peruse” the menu as the saying goes. Nor do I skim, scan or contemplate it—with pleasure or otherwise. I attack it with intent to conquer. I analyze, dissect, question its non-specificity. What is Alpine salad? What fruits comprise Fruit Chantilly? Today’s house jam? I want to know before I commit. And because you can’t get there if you don’t know where you’re going, I start with dessert—which is why I learn about chef-owner Yolande’s childhood before I taste a bite of her eponymous bistro’s food.
It begins with my spotting, at the very end of the menu, following mousse au chocolat, café Liégeois and tarte tatin, an intriguing item listed as Grand Mere’s Table. It promises “to bring the Old World fun to you with a new twist,”
What is that all about? I want to ask Yolande. Is she the lady in red? Indeed, she is, ready, willing and fetchingly eager to tell us about her idyllic childhood in France where, after Sunday dinner, the grandchildren gathered around a table set with homemade jam and preserves, powdered sugar, jars of Nutella, bananas and mandarin orange, plus bowls of batter and a griddle “for making all the crêpes we could eat.”
She wanted to replicate this enchanting experience tableside in her restaurant. For groups of all ages, at $7 per person.
But Yolande’s is a bistro as well as a crêperie and we have a ways to go before actually tasting that dessert. We start with onion soup. Cheese-topped, multinuanced, not too salty, and pleasingly clogged with golden shreds of sweet onion, it is also barely warm—impossible to enjoy. Reheated, it’s delicious. A salad of endive, arugula and watercress got everything right, the watercress so abundant and tasting so freshly picked you’d think it was plucked from a crystalline stream outside the kitchen door. Dressed with walnut vinaigrette and garnished with walnuts, Roquefort and slices of Comice pear, smaller versions of this excellent salad turn up throughout the meal. Redundant, perhaps, but good things bear repeating.
Onion tarte tatin is less successful. While the filling is luscious and the onions beautifully caramelized, the crust is thick, undercooked and mushy.
The largest section of the menu is devoted to galettes. Translated as “savory crêpes,” these prove to be Breton-style crêpes made with buckwheat flour (gluten-free) and filled with various combinations of ham, cheese, spinach, mushrooms, smoked salmon and ratatouille, some topped with a fried or poached egg.
The comforting feeling of authenticity, which grows as the meal goes on, makes sense to me because I did a little research ahead of time. Yolande is the daughter of French chef Noel Lacan, longtime owner of The Playhouse Inn in New Hampshire, where she grew up—hanging around the kitchen as a child, serving in the dining room as a teenager, and, the highlght of her youth, visiting her grandparents in France for at least a month every four years. She studied hotel and restaurant management at the University of New Hampshire and never thought of doing anything else. She lives in New Haven now, and voilà: Yolande’s Bistro and Crêperie.
Hard put to choose, we try a galette called “chicken du jour,” which turns out to be a paper-thin, extremely tasty crêpe plumply filled with boneless chicken fricassee in a light, almost au jus sauce. Served with rice pilaf, this hearty crêpe, like many on the list, could have served as an entrée. The menu calls them “Bistro Specials.” The lightest and in some ways the loveliest of these is trout almondine, tender and bone-free, gently sautéed in almond butter.
Of course, no French bistro would be complete without steak frites, and Yolande’s meets the challenge with a mound of pale gold matchstick fries so crisply fried they melt in the mouth—or would have had they been hotter. The steak is thin, as bistro steaks tend to be, but the chef still manages to serve it medium-rare, i.e., pink inside), as ordered. Chewy but not tough, flavorful enough to do without sauce.
Lamb chops l’Ancienne (i.e., roasted with old-fashioned whole-grain mustard) are delicious—a five-chop feast. Duck confit, a leg portion roasted in its own fat, scented with herbs, is curiously dry with a flabby skin. With a ton of apple butternut squash hash alongside, this dish is a little heavy. But for hearty appetites, what’s wrong with that? I do wonder, however, about steak tartare listed as an entrée for $24. Who could eat that much raw meat? We give it a pass.
With nine dessert crêpes to choose from, we limit ourselves to two so that we could try mousse au chocolat and tarte tatin also on offer. Crêpe Mont Blanc is unavailable because “the kitchen is out of chestnut cream.” A pity because Mont Blanc with crème Chantilly, named for the highest mountain in the Alps, is a peak dessert experience and any version of it would have been welcome. However, crêpe sucre citron, made with butter, sugar and lemon, is delicate and bright, and crêpe Nutella and fruit is a rococo extravaganza filled with cream, bananas, strawberries and mandarin orange.
All’s well that ends well? Not quite. The elephant in the room is the fact that the onion soup, the trout almondine, the frites, the steak and the lamb chops all arrive cool verging on cold on cool-verging-on-cold plates.
A waitstaff problem? A kitchen problem? A systems problem? An easy fix? Maybe. Might not happen every time? Perhaps. But the fact that it did happen and could happen again weighs heavily when it comes to awarding stars. It should also be remembered, though, that Yolande’s is relatively new and, given time, could become just what Orange Street needs—a great little French bistro and crêperie. Hope so.
Yolande’s Bistro & Crêperie
99 Orange St., New Haven, 203/787-7885, yolandesbistro.com
Open Tuesday through Thursday 11 to 9, Friday till 10:30, Saturday 9 to 10:30, Sunday 9 to 2:30. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $7.50 to $14.75, crêpes $6 to $15.75, entrées $20 to $32, desserts $6.25 to $10.