YOUNGSTOWN – When I heard that The Bistro at the Old Fort Inn was reopening under new management, I was intrigued. The old place had been one of our local favorites, after all. Would the new management uphold the old standards?
When I was told that the new place would have a Latin/Mexican flavor, I was more then intrigued. In sleepy little Youngstown? You could have knocked me over with a straw sombrero.
Upon learning that plans were to stay open throughout the often challenging winter months, I must admit to shaking my head. Mexican, in Youngstown, in the dead of winter? A tough trifecta, indeed.
After stopping by to see what the new place is all about, my concerns have been allayed, to say the least. I say ole! to Jaguar at the Bistro. And bring on the snow! To borrow an expression from Jose Feliciano, Feliz Navidad, prospero ano y felicidad! It should be an interesting solstice along the sultry shores of ye olde Shorten Strait!
The place looks pretty much the same – still standing in the shadows of the Old Fort’s ordnance. A stone and timber interior, that wonderful central fireplace, the inviting baby grand. The piped-in jazz sounded vaguely familiar. The wine collection seemed impressive.
I have to admit that, after my initial glance at the menu, I called our very nice waitress, Jessica, over and asked when the “changing over’’ of the menu takes effect. “Oh, it already has,” she responded. “This is the new menu.”
But I didn’t notice any words like tamales, tortillas or quesadillas at all ... and it was small enough that I had perused the whole thing before inquiring. Interesting, I thought.
Instead of enchiladas there was lobster over risotto; rather than fajitas, they offered filet mignon with crab stuffing. But what about the Mexican flavor?
Turns out, chef Victor Parra Gonzalez (as nice a fellow as you’ll ever meet) plans to blend it in gradually, while keeping some of the old standbys’ on board. So you’ll still find the likes of chicken and biscuits, shrimp Alfredo and the pork chop with apple chutney.
You’ll also find stuffed poblano peppers, crammed with a filling of pork, beef, dried fruit and nuts, and smothered with Nogada foam, a Jaguarian take on the classic walnut foam. Taken in its entirety, it results in a dashing dish of red, green and white tones reminiscent of the Mexican flag. Aka, Mexican flavor.
The pork spare ribs were oven-braised to a fall-off-the-bone tenderness, then “perfumed with traditional aromatics” and coated in tomato sauce. It wasn’t “barbeque,” by any stretch of the imagination – at least not traditional “American” style – but it was darned fine eating.
Hey, we said a Mexican flavor, didn’t we? Not an entirely Mexican menu! There’s a big difference, and as such, it should be monumentally easier for Jaguar to breeze through the winter months like a stiff Nor’easter, and well beyond. Even in Youngstown – or should that be, especially in Youngstown?
Chef Victor is trained in classical French cuisine and is most recently of the International Buffet at the Seneca Niagara Casino. He plans to blend his French background with his Latin roots (Acapulco native) to create some dishes uniquely tailored for the Niagara Frontier. Dishes that invite you to “eat with your eyes,” as Miss Jessica explained. Meals that look as good as they taste.
He’s right on target so far. The scallops ($20) were wonderful, several absolutely huge pieces seared to a crisp exterior and beautifully complemented with a butternut squash and lobster sauce on one side and apple chutney on the other. All my wife could say is, “I want more!”
“Of the scallops?” I inquired.
“Of everything!” she gushed.
Tangy-sweet pomegranate arils were used to offset the restrained spiciness of the poblano peppers in that dish ($18). They added an unexpected crunch, as well as a fleeting blast of deep-bodied sweetness.
The old standbys’? The Alfredo ($15) was utterly delicious, Jack said, the white cheesy sauce neither too thin nor thick, as is often the case. Generously adorned with perfectly done shrimp, he said it was the best Alfredo he’s ever had.
The ribs ($18) could have been eaten by a toothless man, so tender were they. The sauce didn’t overpower anything but let the flavor of the meat shine through. Well done. The creamed spinach and mashed potato side dishes were both excellent. And the filet ($22)? Thick, but oh-so-soft. At eight ounces, a generous cut, topped with sautéed crab and French demi glace. Absolutely fantastic.
The appetizers were, well, appetizing. We were comped an order of the signature chicken tinga ($8), a chicken concoction served atop a crackery pastry. Very good. We also sampled the French onion soup ($3/cup), seeing as to how the area was once under French control and all that. I doubt the French themselves ever made onion soup this good! The broth was simply superb, the onions and croutons melded in, and the cheese topping perfectly melted over.
We topped the evening off with the traditional Mexican flan and a helping of the bread pudding ($5 apiece), and couldn’t decide which we liked best. The flan was warm and creamy and tasty, as was the bread pudding – except that it had a nice bite with it, due to an ample dashing of alcohol. Yo ho ho, half a bottle of rum! Yum!
Chef Victor wants to make the Jaguar at the Bistro “a destination,” and he’s well on his way toward accomplishing that. Stop by, if you’re in the neighborhood – make a special trip if you’re not. Either way, it’ll be worth the effort.