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Petit Bistro

Joel's Bistro is a decent little place, but it could be oh-so-much better

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For every wonderful touch at Joel's Bistro, there's a little something amiss.

For every fantastic crepe dish, there's a dry-cleaning tag still affixed to a tablecloth. For every delicious slice of quiche, there's a server with an odd case of the shakes. For every wonderful bowl of French onion soup, there's a chair that looks like it belongs in a convention center, not a French bistro.

Yes, these are nitpicks, and that's why at the end of the day, I'll recommend this little Main Gate eatery, and it will take its worthy place among its fellow recommendees in Chow Scan. But, gosh, this place could be truly special, and it bugs me that it's not.

Garrett and I visited Joel's on a recent Saturday evening, before a show at Centennial Hall. We were impressed by the look of the little restaurant; wanting to get a gander at its décor, we chose to sit inside rather than outside in the courtyard Joel's shares with Sinbad's and Starbucks. We were seated at a table near the kitchen, and we started soaking up the atmosphere. Wood floors, light-yellow (almost cream-colored) walls and light-yellow curtains give the place a slightly bright, yet still-mellow feel. A fireplace (closed off, it appeared) and Perrier bottles with live greens growing inside on each table added character.

We glanced over the modest menu. For lunch and dinner, options include quiches, cold and hot sandwiches, salads, two soups (the aforementioned French onion and a soup du jour) and five regular entrées: chicken burgundy, beef burgundy, salmon with béarnaise sauce and a New York steak dish. The prices are beyond reasonable; for example, the quiche slices cost $5.50, while the entrées are all $10.95, except for the salmon, which will cost you an extra $2.

We chose to split a special, the chicken and mushroom crepe ($7.95), for an appetizer. We each ordered a soup: Garrett got the du jour, in this case tomato basil ($2.95), while I went for the French onion ($3.95). For main courses, I chose a piece of the fruit de mer quiche (shrimp and crab meat), while Garrett got another special, the New York strip with brandy sauce.

It was after ordering when we started noticing some of the place's faults. As I noticed how ratty our tablecloth was--several fibers had been snagged and were sticking out--Garrett spotted the dry-cleaning tag at the adjacent table's cloth. We realized how out of place the blue, stackable chairs looked. Meanwhile, as other tables got bread, ours did not (we eventually asked for it). For some unknown reason, our server was skittish as a spooked cat, although he was competent otherwise.

Our sizzling crepe, however, was delivered in no time, and it earned a mixed review. It looked great--but the chicken inside tasted fatty and low-quality. This would have been amazing with better chunks of meat; as it was, it didn't impress.

The soups, however, did. My French onion (which I got after the server originally brought me the wrong kind) was good--cheesy with chunks of bread inside. It could have been a bit more flavorful, as it was slightly watery, but that's a minor complaint. There was nothing to complain about regarding the tomato basil soup--creamy and full of flavor, it was top-notch. Our salads were fairly standard fare.

The entrées could have both been excellent, except they each had one major flaw. My quiche was a delight--full of meat with a perfect balance of egg--except some of the shrimp pieces still had shells affixed, making for some awkward moments in my mouth. Garrett's steak was covered in a brandy sauce he described as "yummy and rich"--except the piece of meat itself was subpar, with more than its share of gristle.

We did not have time for dessert--the show was about to start--so we paid our check and left, slightly disappointed yet looking forward to a return visit for breakfast.

That was because a glance at the breakfast menu set our mouths a-watering: fruit crepes and house specialties (French toast, eggs benedict and French waffles, to start) join with breakfast standards to create, at least on paper, a delicious offering. A variety of coffees is offered all the time, too.

During our breakfast visit--on another recent Saturday morning--we were thrilled to find that these standards are not only delicious on paper. We were also happy to find a server who was not so shaky. Sadly, we also found yet more minor flaws (for example, our table cloth was badly stained, and the little plant in the Perrier bottle on our table was badly in need of water). Nonetheless, our breakfast visit was much better than our dinner visit, pushing Joel's into the "recommended" category.

The crepes were simply wonderful. Garrett and I split an order (two for $4.25). You can choose between peaches, cherries, blueberries or strawberries; they were out of peaches, so we picked cherries and strawberries. Served alongside fruit (slices of apple, orange, banana, melon and pineapple) and topped with powdered sugar and butter, the crepes were light and sweet, but not too sweet.

I went with the eggs benedict special ($8.50, with spinach and tomatoes; a regular menu item without the extras is $6.50), and Garrett decided on the French waffles ($3.75). Delivered in no time, my eggs benedict were fine. The spinach added a unique earthiness to the dish, which mixed nicely with the creamy tartness of the hollandaise sauce. The accompanying potato chunks were crispy and perfectly cooked. Garrett's waffles were not quite as good, but it was not the waffles' fault: He was disappointed that no syrups were offered beyond the standard, generic-tasting syrup.

With that, we finished our meal, and left--more satisfied this time, yet perplexed at the abundance of minor faults. If Joel's Bistro were ever to polish things up (getting nicer chairs, new table cloths and higher-quality meats would be a huge start) and pay attention to the details, it could be an amazing restaurant. As of now, it's merely decent--and that's really a shame.

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