In the South Sound, we’re short on a few styles of food and the restaurants that serve them.
One shortage is an authentic Jewish deli — with house-cured pastrami, knishes and rugelach. I frequently play a fun game I call “assemble my own deli,” threading together a meal from various stops.
And aside from a 25-minute drive to a small dinner-only cafe in Steilacoom, La Creme Brulee, I’ve had to play a similar game called “assemble my own French bistro.” Beef bourguignon at Brix 25 and steamed mussels and fries at Pacific Grill filled that void.
Then came Aviateur French Diner, which opened in early April in downtown Tacoma, a restaurant offering bistro classics — and serious potential.
Owner Bertrand Young took a gamble that Tacomans would bite. Aviateur is his second restaurant. That small Steilacoom French cafe I mentioned — the one serving dinner only three nights a week? That’s his restaurant, too. He opened it eight years ago.
Young’s gamble in Tacoma also included the building: a second-story space on Pacific Avenue that can’t seem to keep a restaurant. It’s been vacant almost as much as occupied since 2005.
Young treated the restaurant as turnkey from its former life as Zara Mediterranean Cuisine (2011-2012) and Sea Grill before that (2005-2009). Young didn’t change a thing about the interior, with its swirls of copper and seafoam in a dining room lined with curved booths and crisply dressed tables.
It’s not exactly a French cafe motif. Young said he’s going to fix that eventually. Something he also has yet to fix is adding a sign, which will make finding the entrance much easier. Tip: Enter near 15th and Commerce, not 15th and Pacific.
I won’t paint an “everything’s rosy” portrait of Aviateur. It wasn’t a sure-thing success for me, which is why I recommend this restaurant for lunch only at this time. Three visits during six weeks showed a shaky start.
As with many restaurants, those new-restaurant jitters are slipping away, revealing steady improvement and culminating in a wonderful lunch that would make anyone a fan.
First, a bit about that shaky start. You know how restaurants sometimes make terrible first impressions? Aviateur delivered a doozy.
Ice-cold-in-the-center beef bourguignon ($26) seemed an odd shade of red for a slow-cooked stew. A dry, stringy shank tasted more mutton than lamb ($27) flanked by mushy cassoulet. A request for a French wine inexplicably turned up a suggested bottle of Argentinian malbec. A server’s heavy perfume left its own flavor.
A newspaper critic’s mantra is to return a second and third time to see how the restaurant progresses. I’m glad I revisited, and if you visited in the first weeks and found an iffy restaurant, I hope you’ll go back, too. But make it for lunch.
Dinner items priced $26-$34 land Aviateur in the same top-dollar category as neighboring Pacific Grill and Sixth Avenue’s Asado, but dinner service and delivery at Aviateur can’t yet compete with those restaurants.
Dinner diners also will find smaller-ticket seafood, such as the mussels ($16) steamed in a garlicky broth with skinny salt-and-peppered frites and a house-made aioli. Dinner also includes classics you’ll have a hard time finding in Tacoma, such as bouillabaisse ($21), escargot ($10) and French fondue ($18).
Assembling a light meal from the starter menu is smart strategy at dinner. A plate of pate ($11) doubled as a meal, offering a broad slice of country-style pork pate with cornichon, pecans, whole grain mustard and a sliced baguette. Petite salad ($5) with arugula and romaine went splendidly with a hearty-portioned French onion soup ($8), the ceramic bowl topped with bubbling cheese.
At lunch, cafe fare at easy prices, mostly $9-$12, earned my appreciation. In fact, Aviateur at lunchtime is the kind of French cafe I’ve long wanted for Tacoma. The menu is brief, with sandwiches, salads, soup and a few daily changing items.
A croque madame ($10) was everything that sandwich is supposed to be. Served with a romaine salad, the sandwich proved a knife-and-fork meal with layers of ham, Swiss and custardy bechamel on a griddled buttery croissant, topped with a fried egg. The croque came in two other versions: the classic monsieur ($9) or a vegetarian-friendly spinach ($9).
A beefy burger ($12) was a hefty find: a flour-dusted crescent-shaped bun encased an easily half-pound patty of ground Angus beef, topped with nutty cheese and plucky sauce; salt-and-pepper frites and that house-made creamy aioli finished the plate.
The Northwest salad ($12) is where I spotted ladies-who-lunch potential. It’s an entree-sized romaine salad with the largest portion of grilled salmon I’ve ever seen on a salad; it was finished with gorgonzola, pecans and a tarragon-thyme dressing.
So, Tacoma. We’ve finally got a French bistro, in a convenient downtown location. Now when are we going to get that Jewish deli?
Aviateur French Diner
Where: 1498 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-573-9000.
Serving: Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
Forecast: Grand choice for lunch; dinner was less successful. Approach with caution as this restaurant gets its legs.
Menu: French bistro fare priced $16-$34 at dinner, $9-$18 at lunch.
Wine list: Small and value focused. Fifteen wines by the glass ($6-$12) about equally split between French and California and white and red; 25 wines by the bottle ($24-$78) with half French, the other half a mixture of California, Washington and European bottles.
Wine service: Varied. A request for a server’s recommendation for a French varietal turned up an Argentinean malbec. A return visit found a barkeep well versed in French wine.
Spirits: Best French Champagne cocktail menu in town, but flat Champagne soured a kir royal ($8) and French 75 ($12). The rest of the cocktail list looked like sorority girl sippers.
Staff: Owner Bertrand Young; the chef de cuisine is Christophe Durliat; Robin Boireau is head bartender.
Sue Kidd dines anonymously and The News Tribune pays for all meals.