The Blue Bistro by Elin Hilderbrand
2005 St. Martin’s Press
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
Adrienne Dealey has spent the past six years working for hotels in exotic resort towns. This summer she has decided to make Nantucket home. Left flat broke by her ex-boyfriend, she is desperate to earn some fast money. When the desirable Thatcher Smith, owner of Nantucket’s hottest restaurant, is the only one to offer her a job, she wonders if she can get by with no restaurant experience. Thatcher gives Adrienne a crash course in the business… and they share an instant attraction.
But there is a mystery about their situation: What is it about Fiona, the Blue Bistro’s chef, that captures Thatcher’s attention again and again? And why does such a successful restaurant seem to be in its final season before closing its doors for good? Despite her uncertainty, Adrienne must decide whether to move on, as she always does—or finally open her heart…
It’s been over five years since I first discovered Elin Hilderbrand and I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to pick up another one of her books. I enjoyed The Love Season (another “foodie” read set in Nantucket) and had planned to read The Blue Bistro, but of course, other books vied for my attention. Looking for a light summer read (read: brain candy), I started the novel in June, but set it aside for the Paris in July Challenge. And then Love Anthony (Lisa Genova) arrived and I couldn’t not read it. And then our granddaughter arrived and there wasn’t much time for reading. But I had no trouble picking up where I’d left off and wound up really enjoying this novel. Enough so that I want to read more by Hilderbrand. And I’m in luck, as she’s been very busy these past few years. There are nine more titles on her backlist—ten if you count her upcoming release in 2013.
The only restaurant experience I have is that of the fast-food sort (which I wrote about here). While I enjoyed the glimpse into the behind-the-scenes nature of a full-service restaurant in The Blue Bistro, I have no desire to open my own, nor work in one, even as a sous-chef. Too much stress and pressure! But I’d love to dine in a restaurant such as The Blue Bistro. Hilderbrand’s novel includes dinner menus, which had me drooling and longing for recipes.
Pretzel Bread? Yes, please.
Bruno reappeared with two baskets swathed in white linen napkins and a ramekin of something bright yellow.
Thatcher unveiled one basket. “Pretzel bread,” he said. He held up a thick braid of what looked to be soft pretzel, nicely tanned, sprinkled with coarse salt. “This is served with Fee’s homemade mustard. So right away the guest knows this isn’t a run-of-the-mill restaurant. They’re not getting half a cold baguette, here, folks, with butter in the gold foil wrapper. This is warm pretzel bread made on the premises, and the mustard ditto. Nine out of ten tables are licking the ramekin clean.”
Doughnuts as an appetizer? OK!
“The other basket contains our world-famous savory doughnuts,” Thatcher said. He whipped the cloth off like a magician, revealing six golden-brown doughnuts. Doughnuts? Adrienne had been too nervous to think about eating all day, but now her appetite was roused. After the menu meeting, they were going to have a family meal.and
The doughnuts were deep-fried rings of a light, yeasty, herb-flecked dough. Chive, basil, rosemary. Crisp on the outside, soft on the inside. Savory doughnuts. Who wouldn’t stand in line for these? Who wouldn’t beg or steal to access the private phone line so they could make a date with these doughnuts?
The corn chowder and the shrimp bisque are cream soups, but neither of these soups is heavy. The Caesar is served with pumpernickel croutons and white anchovies. The chevre salad is your basic mixed greens with a round of breaded goat cheese, and the candy-striped beets are grown locally at Bartlett’s Farm. Ditto the rest of the vegetables, except for the Portobello mushrooms that go into the ravioli—those are flown in from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. So when you’re talking about vegetables, you’re talking about produce that’s grown in Nantucket soil, okay? It’s not sitting for thirty-six hours on the back of a truck. Fee selects them herself before any of you people are even awake in the morning. It’s all very Alice Waters, what we do here with our vegetables.”
“The most popular item on the menu is the steak frites. It is twelve ounces of aged New York strip grilled to order—and please note you need a temperature on that—served with a mound of garlic fries. The duck, the sword, the lamb lollipops—see, we’re having fun here—are all served at the chef’s temperature. If you have a guest who wants the lamb killed—by which I mean well done—you’re going to have to take it up with Fiona. The sushi plate is all spelled out for you—it’s bluefin tuna caught forty miles off the shore, and the sword is harpooned in case you get a guest who has just seen a Nova special about how the Canadian coast is being overfished.”
And then there’s the busy season:
Adrienne had been hearing about August since her first day of work. When the bar was busy, Caren might say, It’s busy, but not as busy as August.” When the dining room was slow back in mid-June, Thatcher had said, “You’ll be longing for this once it’s August.” What was it about August? Everyone was on Nantucket in August—the celebrities, the big money, the old families. It was America’s summer vacation. Thirty-one days of sun, beach, boating, outdoor showers, fireflies, garden parties, linen sheets, coffee on the deck in the morning, a gin and tonic on the patio in the evening.
In the restaurant kitchen, August meant lobsters, blackberries, silver queen corn, and tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes. In honor of the last year of the restaurant, Fiona was creating a different tomato special for each day of the month. The first of August (two hundred and fifty covers on the book, eleven reservation wait list) was a roasted yellow tomato soup. The second of August (two hundred and fifty covers, seven reservation wait list) was tomato pie with a Gruyere crust. On the third of August, Ernie Otemeyer came in with his wife to celebrate his birthday and since Ernie liked food that went with his Bud Light, Fiona made a Sicilian pizza—a thick, doughy crust, a layer of fresh buffalo mozzarella, topped with a voluptuous tomato-basil sauce. One morning when she was working the phone, Adrienne stepped into the kitchen hoping to get a few minutes with Mario, and she found Fiona taking a bite out of a red ripe tomato like it was an apple. Fiona held the tomato out.
“I’d put this on the menu,” she said. “But few would understand.”
Oh, I would!
Final Thoughts: The Blue Bistro is most definitely a light and fluffy beach read, but at the same time, it’s absorbing and well-written. I look forward to reading more from Hilderbrand’s backlist, but I may need to space them out. I can see how they might begin to blur together and I know I’m already forgetting some of the details from this one.
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