First Take: Bistro 31 in Highland Park Village

The interior of Bistro 31 in Highland Park Village. Photo by Desiree Espada.
The interior of Bistro 31 in Highland Park Village. Photo by Desiree Espada.

Loren Means gives us a snapshot of what to expect at Bistro 31, Alberto Lombardi’s newest creation in Highland Park Village.

What to expect: Prolific restaurateur Alberto Lombardi’s newest creation is in the heart of Highland Park Village. The restaurant is named to honor the year the original structure was built in: 1931. On my trip to the bistro, the Village was packed with shoppers and locals enjoying the holidays. With the holidays in full swing, you might be pressed to find a parking spot but there is valet parking available next door.

Pisco sour. Photo by Desiree Espada.

Setup: The interior is sleek and elegant without feeling stuffy or fancy. Beautiful chandeliers, which were immediately identifiable as Murano glass, hang from the ceilings above the marble topped tables. The floors are oak herringbone, the booths are covered in cream-colored leather, and abstract paintings on the white walls create a very European feel. The open-air patio, tiled floors, and two tops spilling out onto the sidewalk create a true bistro feel. You could be in Italy or the south of France. We opted for a sidewalk table. The weather was perfect for outdoor dining and the ceiling of Christmas lights from all the trees created a lovely atmosphere. If you choose to dine al fresco during the day, I would forgo the sidewalk option as you may feel like you’re eating in a parking lot without the night sky and Christmas lights to disguise it. Additionally, the actual patio has heating and air conditioning as well as a retractable roof that will keep you dry should the weather take a turn.

Caesar salad. Photo by Desiree Espada.

On the menu:  I frequent a handful of Lombardi’s restaurants and have a love affair with Taverna, so I was excited to try Bistro 31. The menu offers dishes from Spain, Italy, and France. They have a broad selection of starters, soups and salads, pastas, and mains. Everything sounded so delicious we had a hard time making decisions. While the house crostini sampler sounded appealing (you can have your choice of three for $7.5 or five for $12) we decided to save that for a happy hour day and moved on to the real stars. To start we had the Steak Tartare “31 style” and the Steamed Pei Mussels. The steak tartare, a blend of Kobe beef and filet, has a hint of Dijon mustard flavor and is served with toast points. The meat melted in my mouth. The mussels have a Spanish flare and were swimming in a slightly spicy sauce studded with chorizo, potatoes, and calabrese chiles. Before our entrees came out, we decided to split the roasted beet and burrata salad. The presentation was stunning with both red and golden beets as well as heirloom cherry tomatoes. The combination of the three ingredients was light, yet indulgent. For our entrées we ordered the Trofie pasta and the Brioche Crusted Lemon Sole. The pasta was cooked to perfection and although it was boasting a Parmesan cream sauce we could still taste the individual flavors of the pancetta and roasted cauliflower. It was wonderful, but a little on the rich side, so splitting was a good choice. The sole was lightly breaded which enabled us to enjoy the fresh flavor of the fish and the béarnaise aioli was served on the side to allow us to control the amount we wanted to use. The fish is served over a bed of Yukon potato mousseline, which needed a quick hit from the salt fairy but were otherwise creamy and buttery as mashed potatoes should be.

Pork chop with gorgonzola grits. Photo by Desiree Espada.

Drinks: The bar area is small but does allow space for guests to have pre-dinner drinks.  The cocktail menu offers a variety of classic cocktails such as the French 75, which I sampled, and specialty cocktails such as the Bistro 31 Homemade Gin & Tonic which my guest opted for.  Most of the French 75’s I’ve ordered were shaken with ice and poured into a martini or shallow champagne glass. At Bistro 31, it is served in a tall glass over ice and didn’t taste like a French 75. The homemade tonic was appreciated but was too tart for my companion’s taste buds. As a fun alternative you can try add-ons for champagne such as fresh orange and elderberry flower or order one of the five varieties of stuffed olives for your martini. The wine list proved to be the winner for us. I love Orin Swift “The Prisoner” Zinfandel which was only offered by the bottle and our server suggested a glass of the Lodi Zinfandel which turned out to be a great substitute and paired nicely with the steak tartare and beet salad. Our faithful server, Bryan, suggested we pair the seafood dish with a Terlano Pinot Grigio which was crisp and easily cut through the cream of the pasta and the béarnaise sauce on the fish. Wines from around the globe are represented and price ranges from $32-$198 per bottle. Wines by the glass are available for $8-$18.

Roasted duck breast. Photo by Desiree Espada.

Who was there:  There were two small families with teenage children and a few 30-somethings and 50-somethings peppered about, but Bistro 31 is drawing a mostly 40’s crowd. Everyone in the restaurant was well dressed and fashionable but it was not your Dallas glam scene. Other than the handful of animal prints we spotted, the low key bistro vibe was reflected in the patrons’ apparel.

Pumpkin cranberry bread pudding. Photo by Desiree Espada.

Price: The lamb loin is the most expensive item at $27.

Interior seating. Photo by Desiree Espada.

Nice Detail: Our server was attentive but not invasive. The courses were nicely paced. Dishes were cleared when finished and new ones arrived promptly but at no point did we ever feel rushed. It was a very leisurely meal.

The Takeaway: I look forward to returning soon to try the seared foie gras with roasted figs and pistachios. I’d also like to try their breakfast and lunch menus. If you’re up for an après dinner activity you can hop on a horse-drawn carriage and go on a light tour around Highland Park. Or if you’re looking for something more lively head to the bar at the Marquee Grill to bump elbows with the real housewives of Highland Park and sip on cocktails made by the talented mixologist, Jason Kosmas.