In November, a chef from Acapulco took over the Bistro at the Old Fort Inn in Youngstown. The building is within musket range of the driveway to Old Fort Niagara, which is the reason most Youngstown visitors have made the drive. ¶ Chef Victor Parra Gonzalez renamed it Jaguar at the Bistro, and talked about serving nouveau Mexican. Not fajitas and with-beans-and-rice plates, but modern cuisine harnessing classic Mexican flavors and pairings. Nobody does that in Western New York, and I wondered how a jaguar could survive the winter in Niagara County. ¶ That’s why my recent dinner there was flavored with a soupçon of relief. To have missed it, dishes that deftly put exotic flavors in approachable settings, again and again, would have weighed on my professional conscience. Jaguar at the Bistro is another reason to go to Youngstown.
The building, a 40-minute drive from downtown Buffalo, hasn’t changed much. The old sign is still hanging out front.
Inside, there’s a cozy barroom with a fireplace, where a piano player tickled the ivories during our Saturday dinner. Beyond it, the dining room had walls the color of terra cotta and comfortable chairs.
Our server was in training, accompanied by a more experienced partner. They brought amuses bouche of creamy salmon tartare with scallion, hardly groundbreaking, but fresh.
Fancy $9 cocktails are everywhere these days, but the watermelon margarita stood out. Poured tableside over frozen cubes of watermelon puree, it was delicious and not too sweet, with a thyme sprig adding complementary aroma.
A basket held warm bread with a crackling crust, served with whipped cilantro honey butter that tasted fresher than usual. The chef whips his own butter, the server said.
For starters, we ordered scallop with caviar ($11), a barbacoa taco ($9), ceviche ($10) and chicken tinga ($9), plus French onion soup ($5) and zucchini soup with crema (both $5).
For entrees, we asked for red snapper with crispy noodle ($25), pibil style pork ($23), stuffed pepper with nogada sauce ($18) and filet with crab ($28).
Two plump scallops, lightly seared, arrived on a pink shell with a spoonful of corn puree, topped with orange pearls of salmon caviar. The shellfish were cooked to my taste, which is slightly undercooked to some. The menu had said “corn tamal,” so I felt shortchanged on the corn front.
The barbacoa taco and chicken tinga were the most recognizably Mexican dishes we had, both offering meat, chile sauce and cheese on house-made corn discs. The barbacoa, braised beef, was outstanding. Tender and deeply flavored, it was almost good enough to make me forget I had just bought a $9 taco. Three mini-tacos of chicken were tasty, but the mild chile sauce made me wish the chef had asserted his Mexican credentials more strongly.
Ceviche, served in a coconut shell, was tomato-based, briny with olives with tender cubes of acid-cooked fish. Its sweet-spicy balance was playful, and addictive.
The French onion soup was average, with lots of sweet onions in unremarkable broth. The zucchini soup didn’t set any trends either, but it was satisfying in a homey way, crowded with vegetables in a cilantro-scented broth, and a hit of richness from the crema.
The entree plates were arranged carefully. My pibil pork delivered the complex spice background I expected, but the pile of shredded meat topped with scarlet pickled onions was slightly dry, a problem cured by mixing in some of the fresh pineapple salsa alongside it. The square of scalloped potatoes on the plate was tender and refined, composed of millimeter-thin slices. Green beans were chewy, the lone disappointment.
Snapper was cooked well and served atop a swath of tangy chimichurri broadened with mint. A chipotle aioli added heat, richness and a whisper of smoke. Its accompaniment of fried wonton flavored with soy sauce was tasty but puzzling. (Gonzalez said it was an homage to the dish’s roots in Acapulco, a Pacific port that has long incorporated Asian elements into its food.)
Cat’s filet was cooked as ordered, classed up by the ample topping of fresh crabmeat. The Brussels sprouts with bacon were firm and smoky, and the risotto’s rice was tender but not mushy, right on.
The most remarkable entree we saw was the chiles with nogada sauce. Poblanos had been roasted, peeled and stuffed with a mixture of ground beef, pork, dried fruit including raisins and spices. It’s classically served with a creamy walnut sauce, which Gonzalez converted to a foam, applied at tableside. Our trainee server applied it in globs, but that didn’t harm the flavor, a faint tannic sharpness that helped enhance the filling’s richness and the husky charred chile.
For dessert, coconut crusted rice pudding balls ($9), a sort of dessert arancini, were interesting bites. The churros ($5) were excellent, warm, light and crispy. The flan with berries ($7) offered remarkable depth of flavor, from the cajeta, or goat’s milk caramel. It was accompanied by strawberries that were from far away, but improved with a quick sauté in clarified butter and brown sugar.
Chocolate ancho crème brûlée ($7) was creamy and rich, but the inexpert tableside torching left some of the sugar crystals burned while others were unmelted.
By the next day, though, those little stumbles were forgotten. Jaguar at the Bistro is a bounding puppy of a restaurant. Our dinner was clumsy at times, but I didn’t mind. I was wondering what it will be like when it grows into its paws.
Jaguar at the Bistro: 8 plates (Out of 10)
Acapulco native’s nuevo Mexican dishes are pretty, delicious reasons to hit the highway.
WHERE: 110 Main St., Youngstown (745-7141, www.jaguaratthebistro.com)
HOURS: 2 to 9 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday; 2 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Monday.
PRICE RANGE: Starters, $5-$11; entrees, $18-$28.
PARKING: Lot. WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.