Even if you dismiss the oft-quoted statistic that 90 percent of all restaurant startups fail in their first year (the real statistic is closer to 50 percent), the fact remains: the restaurant business is brutal. So long-term success is something to be celebrated, if also dissected and analyzed.
Which brings me to Southside Bistro. A thriving eatery that has long stood alone in the culinary desert that is South Anchorage, it has quietly and steadily become a dining landmark during its 20 years in business.
By the same lapsed logic that prevents New Yorkers from visiting the Statue of Liberty, my husband and I, as South Anchorageites, rarely frequent Southside Bistro. In other words, we take it for granted. So I decided to check in and see what keeps this restaurant relevant.
We met friends for dinner on a recent Thursday night and the dining rooms were doing a brisk business. I made my reservation for the bistro side of the restaurant, which I prefer over the slightly more formal and subdued restaurant side. The room is lively and warmly lit, with a buzzing (but not rowdy) bar crowd. Big vintage French advertising posters adorn the walls (I know, I know, they're a bit dated, but they really work here). The room is casual, but sparkling white linens and saltcellars are still the rule. We settled into a cozy booth and perused the menu, which features updated versions of classic European cuisine.
To begin, we shared an order of truffle fries. In fact, at our friends' insistence, we asked for two orders of truffle fries. My weakness for fried potatoes is well documented and I don't want to oversell them, but these fries are perfect -- slender and crisp with a tender interior. A hint of truffle oil and salt gives them an earthy and addictive flavor -- subtle but distinct.
Next, we ordered the Penn Cove mussels ($12), the Mediterranean eggplant ($8) and the blue cheese custard ($8). The mussels were flavorful in themselves but the saffron cream sauce, while decadent, somehow lacked personality. The eggplant, however, was outstanding. The ragout of tomatoes, peppers and onions, while slow-cooked, had a fresh, lively flavor and the generous flecks of goat cheese lent bright assertive notes to the creamy, slightly sweet slices of eggplant.
The blue cheese custard was the table's hands-down favorite. A fragile mold of custard rests in a sweet port wine reduction. It's light and silky and practically melts when you run your spoon through it. Somehow, magically, it is ephemeral and airy while maintaining the sharpness of the blue cheese flavor. We ate it with the accompanying flatbread, we ate it with french fries, and we shot daggers with our eyes at the waiter who attempted to remove it before we had cleaned the plate.
For our entrees, we ordered veal medallions ($25), rack of lamb ($33), spaghettoni with duck sausage ($18) and Berkshire roast pork ($29) and, according to our waiter, we selected the menu's greatest hits. "Have you had Berkshire pork before?" he asked. "It's the Kobe beef of pork." Not a vain boast. The pork was fork-tender, flavorful and moist. I also loved the mustard greens -- the intense taste hadn't been cooked out, though the leaves were soft and pliant. The white beans, however, lacked punch. I could see seasoning and chunks of ham throughout, but what I saw on my plate didn't materialize on my tongue. Oh well. It's a minor complaint about an otherwise delicious dish.
The rack of lamb was cooked to a perfect medium-rare and the sweet, earthy taste of the meat was beautifully balanced by a zippy cilantro pesto.
The veal medallions, draped with melting Brie and swimming in a tangy lingonberry sauce, were ridiculously decadent. However, the delicate flavor of the veal was a bit lost and it could have been almost any kind of protein under all that richness. Similarly, I didn't really taste the duck in the sausage in the spaghettoni -- the fennel conquered my power of discernment. That said, the sauce was beautiful, fresh with a good amount of acid to counter the rich sausage, and the al dente texture of the fat strands of fresh pasta was perfect.
The following weekend, my daughter and I stopped in for a late lunch and the dining room was hopping even at an odd hour. We shared an order of the steamed Manila clams ($12) and french fries ($4.50 -- not truffled this time, by decree of my daughter). The clams are a bold bowlful with a strong garlic presence -- not suitable for a first date (unless you share) but with a flavor that I love. A generous quantity of a savory, citrusy broth, perfect for dipping bread and french fries, make this a dish I'll go back for.
We followed it with a shrimp salad. These sweet, tiny bay shrimp are tossed with a light vinaigrette made creamy with feta. It was nice but not remarkable.
Before leaving, I ordered a Cubano sandwich ($15) to go for my husband ,who couldn't join us. He shared a bite with me that made me instantly regret not ordering it for myself. A heap of sweet, shredded pork topped with black forest ham and Gruyere and brightened up with old-school yellow mustard and thick dill pickle slices. This kind of thing is catnip for me and I'm craving another one right now.
My conclusion? There's nothing really mysterious about Southside Bistro's ongoing success. Beautiful food expertly prepared will never go out of style.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat., closed Sun.-Mon.
Location: 1320 Huffman Park Drive