Blue Talon Bistro – Those Claws Could Use Some Sharpening (Grade: B)

I really want to like Blue Talon Bistro.  I mean, I want to gush about how they’ve got this cool little French countryside restaurant tucked in the middle of historic Williamsburg, how good of a job they did with the fun rooster-themed décor, and how they consistently turn out well-crafted provincial cuisine.  And the restaurant not only features all of that, but they are civilized enough to allow you to make reservations on opentable.com.  But after several visits, I’m left with this flat feeling about the place – a real je ne sais quoi that’s sapped the excitement I had the first time I ate here.

Billed as “serious comfort food,” Blue Talon’s menu is a primarily French-themed.  It focuses on heartier, rustic Alsatian-style dishes rather than the fussy big-plate-small-food delicacies many Americans have come to associate with French cuisine.  I say the menu is French “themed,” because there are a variety of decidedly non-French options (a hamburger, macaroni and cheese and meatloaf to name a few).  As with most Virginia restaurants, Blue Talon flagrantly discards all notions of reasonable portion size – which is to say:  whatever you order, you’ll get a lot of it.

The food at Blue Talon is generally quite good.  One of my favorite appetizers is the spring pea soup with crab they’re currently selling.  Served in a little metal pot, the soup is a beautiful bright green concoction with chunks of jumbo lump crab submerged in it.  Not only does the restaurant avoid the standard dull brownish-green soup that lesser cooks served up when the dish was a bit more common, but every bite of Blue Talon’s soup is super fresh and light and everything a springtime dish should be.  Another great appetizer is the Raclette cheese, which Blue Talon serves melted over fingerling potatoes and sausage.  Melted cheese on potatoes and sausage?  How can you possibly go wrong?  This dish is incredibly rich and savory and cheesy and salty and addictive as all get out.  It’s just plain awesome.  But it is also a hugely dense fat and starch depth charge (not that there’s anything wrong with fat and starch, mind you).  I’d say this is an appetizer that’s better for sharing.  Trying to motor through this and then eat a whole entrée is a bit of a challenge (and it isn’t like you can just eat some of this dish, either, unless you have super-Jedi will power that I do not possess).

The honey-marinated goat cheese with beets and grilled bread is another outsized flavor bomb.  And by “bomb,” I mean it hits the table and suddenly the lights are all supernova bright, your eyes get huge and your ears start ringing.  And, yes, you will eat all of it.  All gazillion calories of it.  It’s really, really good, but it’s a lot of food for an appetizer.  One wonders if Blue Talon is catering for the William and Mary football team on the side.  (Does William and Mary even have a football team?)  On the other end of the flavor spectrum in the appetizers are Blue Talon’s mussels, which are prepared in the mariniere style.  While nicely cooked, the broth is thin and uninspired.  Usually, all I want to do is sop up mussel broth with whatever’s within arm’s reach – bread, fries, napkin … you get the picture.  At Blue Talon, however, the pot just got pushed over to the side of the table.

I think the entrées are where Blue Talon starts to lose a little of its luster.  The steak that comes with the steak frites is a very nice cut of skirt steak and far more tender than I would have expected, but was marred by the execution the last time I ordered it.  I asked for medium-rare, and it came straight-up rare with a cool red center.  Now, if you ordered this in France, most restaurants would serve you a very rare cut of beef, and I have no problem with that – I happily chewed through the rare steak Blue Talon served me.  Folks who really want their steak an American medium rare (warm red center) would have likely rejected the steak I got.  The other problem with the steak was that it was way oversalted (this coming from someone who really, really loves salt), as if it was salted after it was cooked, rather than before.  Oddly, the parmesan-truffled fries that accompanied the steak seemed to have missed the salting station entirely.  I also have to point out that Blue Talon is selling their steak frites at a pricy $27 – the dish, after all, is supposed to be an inexpensive alternative to a large steak dinner, and Blue Talon is supposed to be a bistro, not a steak house.  So, to charge $27 for a steak frites, I think that steak frites had better be dead on, and Blue Talon’s wasn’t.

Blue Talon also offers up plates of the day – as in braised goat on Mondays, lamb steak on Tuesdays, and so on.  I don’t get the sense they change these up all that often, so I guess points for … predictability?  I had Friday’s non-French seafood curry, which is a Thai-style green curry with about five pounds of seafood in it.  OK, not really five pounds, but there was a lot.  Fortunately, the server warned me that it was huge, so I bypassed an appetizer (and dessert).  Here, Blue Talon got bogged down on putting as much in the (massive) bowl as humanly possible without paying a lot of attention to the flavor of it all.  The curry was very light on flavor, although it did deliver on the heat end of things.  The seafood was generally done well, although the majority of it was a huge knot of bland, unidentifiable and overcooked fish.  It was definitely not the most exciting thing in the world, and I would actually suggest the restaurant abandon this dish and do something a bit more, well, French.  Like bouillabaisse.

If you can make it to dessert (I’ve done it once), you are served up a long list of tantalizing treats.  I had the basque gateau, which was basically a vanilla cream tart with blackberry preserves.  The presentation was a lot of fun, with the preserves showing up in a personal jelly jar with a small wire-clip top.  The tart itself had a light and crisp crust with a just-sweet-enough vanilla interior.

In my opinion, the real excitement at Blue Talon is at the bar.  It’s a shame the waitstaff (more on them later) never voluntarily offers up the cocktail menu.  It was only after several visits that I found out they even had a cocktail menu, and then it was only because I asked the waiter if they had one.  Take “The Bee’s Knees,” for example.  This is a brilliant concoction of gin, honey, lemon juice, orange bitters and cracked black pepper with a chunk of honeycomb at the bottom of the glass.  It’s just citrusy enough and just sweet enough and has just the right amount of peppery kick to give every sip a sprightly, “Hey, how are you doin’?”  Aside from the wine list, the bar often has a number of other wines available by the glass.  When asked about these off-menu wines, one waiter deadpanned, “Why don’t you just come up to the bar with me, otherwise I’ll just be up there writing everything down for ten minutes.”  I thought this was hilarious.  My dining companion, well, not so much.

One significant reason for my ambivalence towards Blue Talon is their waitstaff.  They are consistently pretty bad.  Yeah, they could get by (maybe) at a Chili’s, but Blue Talon isn’t touting itself as some cheap fast-food-with-waiters place.  Don’t get me wrong – they’re pleasant enough and seemingly interested on occasion, but for the most part they’re just haphazardly going through the motions.  One standard motion of the staff – which I presume to be is primarily local college students – is their “vanishing wine order” trick.  You ask for a glass of wine, and then you don’t get it.  Cool, huh?  Sometimes I let the waiter come by the table a few times and do something with the table on my left, then do something with the table on my right, then blankly stare at my still-empty wine glass, then wander off to do God knows what.  I pass the time coming up with things that may be going through his head during this process.  You know, like, “Whoa.  I seriously can’t believe Snooki hooked up with Vinny.  That’s, like, just messed up.”  One time I actually got up from the table and went and hunted down the waiter who had gone MIA after taking the order to remind him of it.  Of course, it could just be whatever system Blue Talon is using, since often wine is brought by someone-not-my-waiter.  But that doesn’t really explain the waiter taking the order then not wondering why the glass hasn’t hit the table after ten minutes.  Am I being prissy?  Maybe.  But I just don’t think I’m being unreasonable to order a glass of red to go with my steak and then kind of hope it arrives at some point before I’m done eating said steak.  And I would cut the restaurant some slack if it only happened once … but it has happened every single time I’ve eaten there.

Another irritating thing about the waitstaff is they generally seem either uninformed about or disinterested in the menu.  I asked one guy what he thought about a particular wine.  He took the wine list from me and read the description off it.  Thanks, bro.  I asked another about the choucroute, described on the menu as “traditional Alsatian combination of smoked pork, sausages and sauerkraut with Riesling.”

“It’s sausages on sauerkraut,” he said.

I waited, assuming he was gathering his thoughts about what else to say.

Silence.

You know, I’d like to think that for $27, I’d get something more than generic “sausages on sauerkraut.”  Are the sausages made in-house?  Are they using locally sourced pork?  Is it someone’s family recipe?  Or is the dish really just a couple of hot dogs on sauerkraut out of jar?  Who knows.

Maybe I’m expecting too much, but could you guys try to focus on what you’re doing?  Just a little?

One of the unintended perks of dining at Blue Talon is that you’ll often find yourself shoulder-to-shoulder with William and Mary students who will quickly remind you that there’s a lot about life that college doesn’t teach you.  Every visit has yielded a few gems, one of my favorite being the young woman wearing a t-back dress … with a noticeably non-t-back bra.

To this day, I debate whether I fault more the dress-wearer for choosing the outfit or her gaggle of friends for not providing some friendly fashion advice.  Another awesome moment was when a young lady ordered the hamburger (which, mind you, has a fried egg on it) and decided to go Atkins on it.  That is, she ditched the bun, which would have been OK had she not then picked up the patty (and egg) with her hands and shoved it into her mouth that way, with grease and yolk running down her forearms.  One student was eating with her visiting mother, and mom asked, “Isn’t this better than going to Subway?”  Daughter looked up from her phone long enough to grunt, “Eh.  I dunno.”  [Note to student:  The correct answer is yes, it’s much, much better than strange pressed meat on bread with similarly strange pressed cheese products and slimy fat-free chemical sauces]  Here’s another fun exchange I overheard recently with one of the more engaged waiters:

Student-diner:  “Do you have Dewar’s 12-year old?”

Waiter:  “No, but we have a nice selection of single-malt scotches.”

Student:  “Do you have Maker’s?  Maker’s with ice?”

Waiter:  “Yes, we also have a good variety of bourbons.”

Student:  “That’s what I want.  Maker’s with ice.”

[loud sound of me smacking forehead -- how hard is "Maker's on the rocks?" or, even better, "What bourbons do you have?"]

Maybe I should give the college kid credit for not asking for a shot of Cuervo and just call it a night.

Blue Talon’s website is worth poking around.  They’ve got a slew of recipes posted, which I think is pretty cool.  They’ve also got some cocktail recipes posted, including one for a margarita that I was prepared to trash from the moment I saw it.  It calls for equal parts Cuervo (bad) and water (even worse).  And there’s no orange liquor.  No triple sec, no Cointreau, no nothing.  Just tequila, water, a lime and some agave syrup.  I followed the recipe to a T just so I could wax on about how some French joint in Virginia had produced the worst bastardization of the margarita in the history of tortilla chips.  And you know what?

Blue Talon’s margarita is one damn good drink.

So the bottom line is this:  ask for the cocktail menu, share an appetizer and don’t expect too much from the waitstaff.

Here’s my faithful Urbanspoon sanity check:
Blue Talon Bistro on Urbanspoon
Grade:  B
Address:  420 Prince George Street, Williamsburg
Phone:  (757) 476-2583
Website:  http://bluetalonbistro.com/

Note on hours:  On weekend mornings, the restaurant inexplicably closes from 10:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. in order to “get ready for brunch.”  Really.

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