Art appreciation may be subjective, but at The Bijou Café, the reviews are always unanimous. For more than 20 years the restaurant has elevated food to fine art status, presenting award-winning fare with universal appeal. In an industry with a national success rate of just 15 percent, the Bijou has defied the odds with a consistently bright palette of pleasing entrees. But longevity in this discerning town demands more than one secret ingredient. Fortunately for us, this place has a pantry-full.
For starters, the cuisine reflects Chef/owner Jean-Pierre Knaggs’ South-African and French heritage. Quite a few of the recipes were gleaned from his travels around the world as a chef aboard a 150-foot private luxury yacht; among them, the restaurant’s famous Pomme Gratin Dauphinois. Featured in Gourmet magazine, Bon Appetit, national hospitality magazines and even in ads for the Ohio Potato Board, these delectable potatoes are smothered in cream with a hint of garlic and baked to a bubbling golden brown with Gruyere cheese.
Many of the mouth-watering menu items, like this one, have endured since the café’s opening. “One thing that is unique about us, or some people might say is boring, is that we’ve had a lot of the same items for 20 years,” explains Jean-Pierre. “Some say ‘but you never change it,’ some say ‘don’t ever change it!’” Consistency is obviously key, in dependable offerings, integrity of product and masterful preparation. The roast duckling, for example, is a veritable sculpture in meat. It’s completely de-boned, seasoned and reconstructed to resemble its original form.
“We season the inside of the duck with thyme, a propriety blend of seasonings, oranges and onions; rub the outside with orange juice. Then we roast it slowly for a long time so the fat melts down through the meat; that keeps it very moist, and results in a nice crisp skin. After it cools we remove all the bones and reassemble the duck over a fruit dressing. It’s a lot of work, but it makes the eating experience a lot easier.” And, by the way, incredibly flavorful.
Among other signature dishes that have delighted diners for decades are the crab cakes, served with a Cajun-style remoulade. They’re pure crabmeat — no filler — and seasoned with a little salt, pepper, Worcestershire and, of course, some ingredients that shall remain undisclosed.
While Jean-Pierre has long left the kitchen, he’s still involved with concepting and testing, along with his executive chef of two years, Dylan Elhajoui. Nightly specials bring an element of surprise to the Bijou’s culinary canvas, which Jean-Pierre says, “…allows the chef to get real creative. Last night we had blue nose bass served on a saffron risotto cake and a beurre blanc sauce with a hint of truffle oil.”
Originally from Morocco, Chef Dylan has infused some of his own ethnic influences with exceptional items such as Moroccan Cornish game hen and couscous. He’s also an award-winning pastry chef, and whips up desserts as attractive as they are irresistible. “Each one is like a work of art,” Jean-Pierre proudly opines, “like his chocolate banana tart; next to that is a vanilla bean rum crème brûlée and a pistachio sorbet decorated with a chocolate drizzle and a spun sugar top.”
The entire menu and extensive wine list is as creative as Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” But unlike the composer’s imaginary art tour portrayed in a suite of music, this gallery walk unveils an experience in food — and art — that is very real. Impressionist and post-impressionist paintings grace the walls of the café, warmly designed like a French Country Inn. Think soft peach, cherry wood, brass, lace and tables draped in crisp white linens topped with fresh fragrant flowers. And while its contemporary exterior belies the European ambience within, it too provides a platform for celebrating art.
Witness, over the years, Jack Dowd’s sculptures, “The Butler”, “Sumo Wrestler”, “The Redneck”, “Earth Angel” and currently, “Andy Warhol”, a life-sized bronze that’s got diners snapping photos for posterity. Many of them are young professionals, offspring of those who’ve been dining here since the late 80’s. And back then downtown Sarasota was still sleepy and Jean-Pierre was called “crazy” for investing in its future.
Who knew? Apparently, Jean-Pierre. Twenty years later, reservations at this extraordinary enclave are highly recommended. A pioneer of the Sarasota-Manatee Originals, the Bijou is the coups de grace of Sarasota’s theatre and arts district, and a masterpiece in itself.
The Bijou Café is located at 1287 First Street, Sarasota. It is open Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. for lunch and 5 – 9 p.m. for dinner, Saturday 5 – 10 and closed on Sundays except during opera season in February and March. Call 366-8111 or visit www.bijoucafe.net to peruse the menu, request a reservation or purchase gift certificates.
Reprinted from Dining Guide Plus