I don’t often have the chance to go back to restaurants unless there has been a major change, a new menu, new concept, different chef or word that there has been a drastic change in the quality, good or bad.
In the case of Aurberinge Bistro, which I first reviewed in early 2000, there were never any indications over the years that anything had changed. In fact, the tiny bistro in Casselberry often slipped my mind when I would try to think of places to recommend in that area. It just kept quietly offering its simple yet good food in an unassuming manner. When I dined with friends earlier this year it was just for fun. I didn’t realize than that it would be the last meal I’d have from then-owner Bernhard Schwab.
Word came a couple of months ago that Schwab had sold the restaurant to Paul D’Amelio and his parents, Mike and Judy. So, then, it became one of those conditions that warranted a revisit.
I’m delighted and relieved to report that anyone who knew Aubergine Bistro before will find it largely unchanged. There are still some things done quite well, — exquisitely, even – and some things that fall flat. But overall it is still a lovely and unassuming café that obviously strives to produce a quality meal.
I was glad to see the signature Aubergine Napoleon appetizer ($8) is still on the menu and still easily one of the best things to come out of the kitchen. It’s a stacked tower of alternating layers of grilled eggplant, tomatoes and creamy-firm goat cheese with fresh basil and drizzles of balsamic vinegar. Instead of slashing through the layers, or toppling it over, one need only lift off the top three layers and leave the rest for one’s tablemates to do the same. What wonderful flavors of the smoky aubergine and tangy yet creamy chevre, and the red pepper coulis sauce was a perfect accompaniment. Even if more menu changes are in the future, this should be written in indelible ink.
Wild mushroom and andouille sausage ($8.99) was another winning starter. It had the main ingredients finely chopped and seasoned with fresh sage all rolled up in flaky phyllo dough, fried and served like some sort of cajun egg roll, with a creamy Boursin cheese sauce.
Stuffed mushroom caps ($8.50), tiny buttons filled with a crabmeat mix that included sun-dried tomatoes, were fairly pedestrian. But a soup of the day ($5), a creamy mushroom, was filled with lots of chewy mushrooms in a rich and flavorful broth.
Sea scallops Provencale ($19.95) was one of the better entrees. It featured thick, pan-seared scallops, the outsides brown and crisped and the insides still warm and moist, served with chopped tomatoes, mushrooms and a hint of garlic in a wine sauce.
One of my guests had the chicken cordon bleu ($18.50), which was offered as a special of the day – and I’ll have a word about the specials in a moment. The breast meat was rolled and baked the slices so the ham and cheese inside peeked out. It was served, as many of the main dishes were, with simply steamed veggies, uncomplicated and unadorned.
Our server told us the new chef seemed to like cooking fish, so I chose one of the fresh offerings, a wahoo ($23.50). It was the only complete stumble I saw from the kitchen, but it was a big one. The fish was hard and dry and not even the buttery sauce that came with it could do anything to save it.
That fish was one of three offered as a special of the day, along with the chicken dish and one or two other dishes. Each was recited by the server with details of the preparation and the sauces, and each time she moved on to the next one I completely forgot what she’d said before. When there are that many specials they should be written down. Surely there’s a printer somewhere in the office, or they could buy a blackboard for the dining room. Something.
When dessert time came there was another litany of items not printed on the menu. The white chocolate bread pudding ($5.50) was firm and had little surprises in the form of cranberries and almonds. The carrot cake ($6.50) was a tad dry, but the crème brulee ($6.50) had a rich and creamy custard under a crust that was only slightly burned.
Little has changed in the interior – not much that could be done with a small space that seats barely 40. But it’s pleasant enough, comfortable and welcoming.
D’Amelio could easily continue the quiet tradition of Aubergine Bistro and maintain a steady following. But I hope that as he becomes more comfortable with his new restaurant he’ll try new things and turn it into the sort of place that one wants to visit more often.
Aubergine Bistro is at 1455 State Road 436, Casselberry. It is open for lunch Tuesday-Friday and dinner Tuesday-Saturday. The restaurant does not currently have its own Web site. The phone number is 407-678-3300.