Jacksonville Restaurant Plays the Bistro Game Well
The use of the term bistro to describe any number of eating establishments is reportedly as elastic in Paris as it is in Baltimore. But if by bistro you mean a casual, chef-driven establishment where unpretentious and hearty cuisine predominates, then Henry's Bistro has earned the appellation.
The executive chef of record at Henry's Bistro is Scott Smith, and its better-known proprietor is Mark Hofmann, a well-traveled chef who named the establishment after both his grandfather and his son. The menu offerings are foursquare enough to satisfy most appetites, but there are enough twists to keep things interesting if never exactly exciting. The menu here provides further evidence that sun-dried tomatoes and portobello mushrooms, decade-defining foodstuffs of the 1980s, are here to stay, and that Chilean sea bass isn't going anywhere soon, either, unless they change its name back to Patagonian toothfish.
Henry's is located in a shopping center next to a Safeway, but it's not the typical strip-mall affair. The freshly landscaped property has some breathing room from its shopping center neighbors, and although the views of northern Baltimore County's historic Four Corners intersection aren't exactly Arles, the natural light (or natural dark, this time of year) coming through the glass walls enhances otherwise blandly designed but comfortable dining rooms.
Words like "hearty" and "foursquare" should already have alerted vegetarians to limited possibilities for them at Henry's Bistro, with somewhat more to choose from among the dozen or so soups and appetizers--warm goat cheese ($5) and black bean soup ($3 cup/$4 bowl)--than from the dozen or so entrées. A separate listing of pastas and sandwiches does include two meatless dishes: a linguine "vegetarian style" ($12) and a cheese tortellini ($15). My party, which included my beach-bound mother and my aunt and uncle, were restricted only by the laws of God in our menu selections, which ran to fish, shellfish, and even pork.
A cup of French onion soup ($4) was hearty and had a pleasant sweetness--whether from the onions themselves or from sherry it was hard for me to tell, especially since Mom was loath to give up too much of it. A shared Caesar salad ($5) was too creamy and not garlicky enough for most of our tastes, and had a few too many croutons piled on top. We acknowledged, bitterly, that this seems to be the kind of biteless Caesar that most people probably now prefer. Not us.
On the other hand, the barbecue sauce that came with the scallops wrapped in bacon ($7) was zippy indeed. Everything about this beautifully arranged appetizer sang, including the four jumbo pan-seared mollusks and the done-just-right strips of chewy bacon.
The entrées, which arrived pretty much on the heels of the appetizers, included a roasted loin of pork stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, and provolone and served on a mountainous bed of mashed (skin-on) potatoes. A nicely done dish, but the tomatoes weren't exploding with flavor (the way they did in the '80s), and evidence of provolone was flimsy. The green beans that came with several of our entrées were the little ones many like to call haricot verts, and they were full of garlic and crunch
Even in the spirit of adventurousness, my mother could not be dissuaded from ordering a dish she's loved before at Henry's, the scallops Chinois ($14). When it came, it was easy to see why. The scallops alternated around the plate's perimeter with slices of orange, all surrounding a salad of mixed greens in a peanut dressing. A lovely light dish and full of piquancy.
Two bocce-ball-sized broiled crab cakes (market price, $23) won my uncle over with their minimal breading and handsome golden color. A Parmesan-encrusted sea bass ($20), one of a handful of menu specials the evening we visited, was served over a delicious smoked trout "chowder sauce," and the result was a blend of rich, buttery flavors and textures, which all pleased my sainted aunt.
Our unobtrusive but helpful waiter finished us off with two desserts--a couple of towering profiteroles ($6), vanilla ice cream sandwiched by chocolate-covered pastry, which proved to be creamy and puffy in equal measure; and a warm turnover ($4) filled with un-gooey, tart apples dusted liberally with cinnamon, and served with ice cream.
On our way out we noticed the busy bar, where the residents of Jacksonville (which for too long has had to play Mayberry to Phoenix's Mount Pilot) were gathered to eat and, perhaps, plan strategies for getting back their own post office. Jacksonville rises.
Call it whatever you want: Omnivore@citypaper.com.