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Bleu may be Winston’s best

by Brian Clarey

Out by the mall, cruising Winston-Salem’s fringe in the rain, we were looking for lunch and having no luck. We wanted a meal – not just a quick grab-and-go but an actual, bona fide repast to mark the middle of the day in the middle of the week.

And then, in between slaps of the windshield wipers, I saw it.

I have known about Bleu since its opening a year and a half ago caused a figurative maelstrom in culinary circles.

It was begun by brothers Freddy and Terry Lee, who brought Winston-Salem the Triad’s only true five-star restaurant, Bernardin’s, where I once ate a plate of barbecued ostrich that still, pardon the expression, ruffles my feathers.

The bar is set pretty high, but Bleu enjoys a few advantages its predecessor did not. While Bernardin’s still operates out of a strip mall on Jonestown Road, Bleu exists inside a free-standing structure built specifically for the purpose – a beautiful stone and wood building that looks more residential than commercial. Too, high visibility and its mallside locale provide excellent drive-by traffic.

But Bernardin’s has built up a reputation over several years as a great white-linen restaurant, one it must honor and answer every night. Bleu is its own thing – great for dinner, fun for brunch, cool for drinks and a damn good lunch – empowered by the cred established by its older, overachieving brother.

I was ready to give it a go.

Lunch is what you make of it at Bleu – there was a short list of $7 items like salads, soups, quiche and wraps; a selection of pastas and stir-fry blends; salads from house to cobb and a couple of soups; a couple pizzas; a slate of fine sandwiches; a reasonable list of fine entrées; and, as always, homemade desserts.

We weren’t here to screw around. Our first course consisted of a roasted vegetable terrine, fried calamari and soups of she crab and watermelon.

On the terrine: Layers of thinly sliced carrots, peppers, onions, eggplant and portobella mushrooms held fast with a cardamom-tomato gelee is light and flavorful, and served with herbed goat cheese, gelee cubes and toasted raisin bread.

On the calamari: The squid ringlets are coated in a batter based on black-eyed peas, which give coarse texture and nutty flavor to the perfectly fried little tasties, then served with Creole mustard.

On the soups: The she-crab soup is soft and velvety, with notes of sherry and chunks of lump crabmeat. Cold watermelon soup tastes a little bit like a Jolly Rancher.

The aesthetic carries over to the lunchtime entrees – fusion-style seafood and steak dishes, mainly – and to the sandwiches as well.

I was the recipient of a shaved prime rib sandwich with lots of bleu cheese, horseradish sauce and onion confit on a thin baguette. For most, this would be a knife-and-fork sandwich, but I folded it over and slugged away, enjoying the interplay between the ingredients. One lunch guest ordered the bleu club, with chicken breast, house-cured bacon and fontina cheese on soft, herbed focaccia. Another requested the hibachi chicken dish, with stir-fried vegetables. Both were winners.

A dessert sampling left us enamored of the peanut-butter mousse pie, on a crust made entirely from Oreos and butter.

I will absolutely be back for Sunday brunch for the French toast, stuffed with candied walnuts and honey mascarpone. And it’ll take several more visits to unlock the dinner menu, which boasts more artistic entrees, creative specials and a steakhouse-style meat menu with seafood, pork and several fine steaks.

And while I don’t assign star ratings to restaurants, I can say that Bleu is as fine a place as I have ever eaten in the Triad. Freddy Lee, who still is head chef at Bernardin’s, has staffed the place with talent, notably Executive John Tharp, who earned his culinary degree from Johnson & Wales and logged time as the sous chef at Manhattan’s Tribeca Grill.

I’d like to see what that guy can do with a bone-in NY strip.

To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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