Petit Bill’s Bistro is about as convivial an eatery as you’ll find in this city. Its owners, the sons of “Little Bill” Fitzpatrick, for whom this restaurant is named, are always about.
And their place is busy, filled with happy sounds of people having a good time. These pine floors are well-worn. Walls are sunny and covered with the works of local artists. The foyer is plastered with evidence of neighbourly endeavours, cards announcing other local businesses and posters of upcoming worthwhile events.
The wine list is terrific. Lengthy and interesting, with good local content, and great choice at every price point. Wines are served at the right temperature, at a fair markup, and Randy or Terry Fitzpatrick – if you can catch them – are always available for a recommendation.
Even the music works. A nice blend of stuff, played at the right volume.
I just wish the food were a bit better.
Which isn’t to suggest I haven’t had some nice dishes here. It’s just been all over the map.
A beet salad with fennel, feta and mint was lovely. Their seafood chowder was well done. The catch of the day one day was white salmon from Whalesbone, and it was perfect, in a red wine butter sauce with a bit of bacon, served with lemoned rice and asparagus. From the table d’hÃ´te, the tuna carpaccio was fine, and the pulled boar stew with gnocchi, heirloom carrots, leeks and Christophe’s mushrooms in a rich gravy was a perfect bistro dish, well-matched with the recommended wine (a gamay noir from the Prince Edward County winery By Chadsey’s Cairns).
Order the steak frites and you’ll be smiling. Delicious, marbled meat, riddled with flavour, grilled to our specification, served with great fries, nicely seasoned. Just get rid of the tossed-on vegetables and all will be well.
But what worked was too often balanced by things that didn’t.
Breaded halibut cheeks arrived soggy, under-seasoned, and with a silly pile of deep-fried, greasy wontons. A turkey-bean lunch soup was a cafeteria bowl of red kidney beans, purÃ©ed tinned tomatoes and bits of dried-out turkey. At least that’s what it tasted like. A curious choice of soup on a chilly April evening – cold melon and cucumber – was dreary, watery, with a rock hard cucumber ball at its centre.
I found the crab cakes moist enough, but tasting oddly (as though combined with a seasoning mix) and missing a crisp coat. Scallops were bathed with a too-sweet maple sauce, a glossy goo that seemed thickened with cornstarch. A lobster club had juicy lobster meat, but there wasn’t much of it. The papadum added an interesting crunch, but also introduced a strong cumin flavour – which didn’t seem quite right – and more salt than you want in a sandwich, while the tomato was unripe, and the flat bread used seemed a bit paltry in terms of its portion. The side salad was a bouncy mix of greens, but the dressing needed a more forceful acid balance.
Nothing terribly wrong with the osso bucco, but the tomato sauce was lacklustre, crying out for a dash of excitement. A finishing gremolata would have been a start. Likewise, the buttered cod was moist and tasty, but there wasn’t much of it. Mostly this was a messy plate of fries, the fish tossed on top, the remoulade not up to scratch.
Like the rest of the menu, desserts were mixed. The chocolate orange cake was moist, rich and delicious. The bread pudding was fabulous. Sauces were weak, however. The crÃ¨me anglaise had a chemical taste. Other sauces were just too sweet, and whipped cream tasted from a can.
Petit Bill’s website contains much about Little Bill, his wife Mary, the Fitzpatrick family history, the mission of the restaurant, its neighbourhood, and the award-winning wine list. But there’s no mention of the kitchen crew.
Their absence speaks volumes.