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Restaurant Review: Petit Robert Bistro - New Location a Bit of a Squeeze

Elegant Food Undermined by Noisy Atmosphere, Slow Service, and Cramped Space

By Marie Y. Thibault

Petit Robert Bistro
480 Columbus Ave.

Boston, MA. 02215
(617) 867-0600

The brick houses behind the Prudential Center are identical to each other, and unfortunately each has its own exceedingly steep set of front steps. Some passersby may wonder how many hips are broken each winter as a result, but no one can help admiring the elegance and quiet sophistication of the architecture and the neighborhood. This is the locale for Boston’s second Petit Robert Bistro, which opened this past July, more than a year after the first restaurant’s debut in Kenmore Square.

Judging from the crowd at the Columbus Avenue location on a recent Thursday night, the new restaurant is already at home. All of the outdoor tables were filled and the bar was lined with more, mostly middle-aged, customers waiting for a table. However, we were lucky enough not to have to wait very long. The walls of the dining room were painted pale yellow with a mirror lining one wall — perhaps in an attempt to convince the crammed diners that the room is twice as large. The effect was lost on us, though, as we were squeezed into a two-person table right next to another couple.

Appetizers range between $5.50 and $9.25, and include options like Steak tartar classic with croutons and mussels marinieres. One exception to this price range is the Pan-seared Hudson Valley foie gras topped with a baked rhubarb cinnamon reduction which is a wallet-busting $16.75. The soups and salads section includes Soupe a l’onion gratine for $6.25, and a Salad Ni oise with fresh pan-seared tuna, which could have served nicely as a main course. Traditional French main dishes on the menu include Bouillabaisse, a seafood stew ($19.25), and Coq au vin or chicken thigh ($15.75).

Although we quickly decided what to order, we had to wait half an hour for our waiter to take our orders (at least he was smiling when doing so). Additionally, given that there were at least 25 other people in the small dining room, our attempts to have a conversation to pass the time were futile. The couple next to us was shouting, but after trying the same tactic, we decided the conversation just wasn’t worth the strain to our vocal cords.

Once the waiter finally showed up, we were able to order the Escargots bourguignon appetizer ($7.75). After another half hour, our snails showed up. They were supposed to be cooked in a garlic butter sauce, but there was nothing either garlicky nor buttery about them. Instead, they were a bit dry and almost … earthy. Still, we found them enjoyable after having waited over an hour for any real food.

Another 30 minutes and a mini-loaf of bread later, our entrees made an appearance. By this time the crowd had thinned the slightest bit and the lights were dimmed (precisely on the stroke of 9!). The noise level is still a dull roar, but now only a few decibels louder than the typical clamor in a high school lunch room.

The Duck confit and grilled duck magret with braised cabbage ($16.75) was quite delectable. The duck leg is tender, juicy, fall-off-the-bone delectable. The duck magret (duck breast) was nicely seasoned and lean, making it the perfect complement to the leg, which gets its savory taste from the melted fat. The Native bluefish grilled with cream of corn and bacon ($13.75) was also very good. The bluefish had found a fitting flavor partner in bacon as the bacon crust gave the fish a slightly salty and nutty taste. Even the braised cabbage side dish was mouth-watering, tasting almost like apple and not at all like cabbage.

The big question is whether or not the food was worth the wait or the lack of dining atmosphere. The answer is no, but it is worth the moderate prices. Although the service was slow, the staff were friendly, and our eternally-smiling waiter offered me some tips as he apologized for the long wait: Go to Petit Robert for lunch, since the prices are lower and a wide selection is still available. And if you’re planning a romantic dinner date, go before 7:30, when the crowds arrive.

I’ll add one more to his. Don’t choose Petit Robert for a first date. Go with someone you’re comfortable with, someone who is patient and accommodating. Otherwise, the shouting conversations will be too stressful and sitting quietly will only be awkward.

In case you’re wondering what we had for dessert – we didn’t stay to look at the menu. We turned our backs on the deafening crowd and my favorite French dessert – Ile flottante, meringue in custard – for a walk through the quiet neighborhood.