Canal Street Bistro
3903 Canal St., 561-6585
This restaurant originally opened as the Eco Café, a combination coffee shop and eatery with an environmentally conscious theme. It gradually transformed, with nearly every part of the operation changing along the way, from the food to the name. The biggest change was the addition of chef Guillermo Peters, who in the past ran what had been the city’s finest, most ambitious Mexican restaurant. Here, under one roof, he’s created two distinct and equally unique restaurants, one at lunch and the other at dinner.
A one-time townhouse, formerly used as offices, the place has always had a somewhat awkward lay out. You walk in to find what looks like the service counter for a nice coffeeshop, and then a pair of adjoining rooms each with just a few tables and even one of those grand rattan peacock chairs in the corner. It has a casual, almost homey vibe and still feels more like a teahouse or lounge than a serious restaurant.
Breakfast & Lunch
Canal Street Bistro is so different during the day and at night that it’s really only fair to split this up into two sections. Breakfast and lunch are both eclectic but recognizable mixes of diner and café fare with a parallel specialty in Mexican dishes. For instance, you can get your feta and spinach omelet, your eggs and grits and your Belgian waffle at breakfast, but also huevos rancheros, migas (scrambled eggs with tortilla chips and chorizo) and quesadillas. It’s a similar story at lunch, where lighter dishes like the quinoa and black bean salad, shrimp and grits and a pressed Caprese sandwich share the bill with fajitas, chile con carne and tortas, or Mexican sandwiches filled with meat, black beans and spicy peppers. While the menu is very wide ranging the quality is consistently high overall. If something looks offbeat here it will still be reliably good.
At dinner, Canal Street Bistro becomes a dedicated Mexican restaurant, but one quite different from any cantina or taqueria. It’s much more upscale, with dishes composed, prepared and presented in a manner like any other fine bistro. Some appetizers are traditional Spanish tapas – like the garlic shrimp – while others are traditional Mexican – like the cool, spicy, citrusy corn salsa with tostadas or the grilled plank of mellow panella cheese with a buttery, berry-flavored sauce. The chef’s sauces are complex and compelling. For entrees, for instance, a poblano pepper is stuffed with lamb with dueling pecan-almond cream sauce and blackberry coulis and grouper is coated with a coconut milk yellow curry. Meanwhile, a filet mignon is the opposite of the austere American steakhouse version. Here it’s stuffed with smoky/spicy chipotle chiles, plated over an open-face quesadilla and topped with chipotle tomato sauce and queso fresco. That’s an awful lot going on for a steak, but then this restaurant does deliver some unique flavors. And just when you think you have the upscale Mexican aspect pegged, the menu also throws a few classic German dishes your way – schnitzels with sauerkraut and spaetzle. It turns out the Mexican chef here also has some German roots.
Flans, cheesecake and the occasional tres leches cake make up the changeable, straightforward dessert selections. These are fine, but you won’t miss much by passing on dessert here.
There’s a full bar and a serviceable wine list, though the distinctive feature is a cart of premium tequilas in the corner of the dining room that the staff will roll over for your perusal. This is also a good spot for fresh juices.
The parallel restaurant experience continues on your check. Breakfast and lunch is inexpensive to moderate, with most individual dishes between $10 and $15. Dinner is expensive, with most entrees between $24 and $28, and first courses between $8 and $12.
With two distinct and equally unique restaurants under one roof, it’s a little hard to get a handle of what Canal Street Bistro is really all about. However, if you can adjust your expectations accordingly to the time of day – and perhaps forget any notions of cantina-style Mexican cooking – it becomes clear that each service offers compelling flavors and consistent quality.