Opened five years ago, the 36th Street Bistro was a welcome addition to the neighborhood at the edge of the Foothills on Hill Road. As part of a newly built work-and-live plaza, the restaurant attached to the 36th Street Garden Center filled a rare niche in Boise: In this area, there are not many places to eat. But there was never anything particularly striking about the experience or the food. It felt more like an espresso bar with a lunch menu tacked on.
Over the last couple of years, though, the cuisine has taken a noticeable advance. Head chef Joe Leseberg has coaxed more interesting and ambitious dishes out of the small kitchen, with a focus on local ingredients and artful plating, and on healthful meals in reasonable portions.
The dining space is high-ceilinged, full of white sunlight and air, surrounded by tall windows that look out onto the plaza and a brick patio lined with flowerpots. The greenery inside is surprisingly restrained; a bit more plant life would help soften the echoes bouncing from the kitchen. Art deco chandeliers float overhead. At lunch and weekend brunch, the menu tends toward lightness, composed of sandwiches and salads, and the room fills with ladies in sharp pink and yellow jackets and older couples who have come in from the garden center to share a pastry.
The chopped spinach and quinoa salad ($9) is representative of the thoughtful, light compositions on the menu. With artichoke hearts, blue cheese crumbles, grape tomatoes, and slices of orange, the flavors come together with intention - and go well with a piece of seared Sockeye salmon ($4 to add on to any salad), though on one occasion it was crazily oversalted.
A vegetarian Cuban sandwich ($9) is not merely a logjam of every random non-meat sandwich topping in the kitchen. These are well-chosen vegetables and olive tapenade on high-quality whole wheat bread. It's as good a vegetarian sandwich as I may have ever had, one that holds together as an actual sandwich, though it's as far from the traditional pork-pickle-and-yellow mustard Cuban as I can fathom.
One brunch item I particularly liked was the white cheddar and bacon grits ($8), somehow both creamy and light, almost aerated, which is a true indicator of time spent and technique.
Good news for carnivores: the Highland beef burger ($9) is outstanding. 36th Street makes much of its use of this lean, grass-fed, all-natural beef, and it is worth the attention. It comes on a Zeppole challah bun with garlic mayo, tomato, onion, and baby greens, but the patty is the star - robust, well-salted, and oozing flavor. Do you remember when we used to be shocked by the mere idea of a $12 burger? I have recently paid that much at a sports bar, and that's now such a common occurrence that I no longer even feign outrage. But here is a much better burger, with higher-quality ingredients, for three dollars less.
In this season, you should not miss one of the chilled soups, offered a la carte or as a side with the lunch items. Recently a gazpacho-like chilled tomato soup showed surprising depth of flavor, and a cup of chilled watermelon soup was greater than the sum of its parts.
At dinner, the culinary theory is put into full practice. A beef tenderloin entrée ($17) is also the grass-fed Highland variety, on a petite mound of mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, with just enough blackberry sauce and a gesture of green vegetable - on one recent day, it was nutty roasted Brussels sprouts.
The smoked-and-braised pork shoulder ($14) arrives as neat cubes stacked on slices of potato. The portion size at first seems somewhat shocking, which probably says more about other restaurants than it does about 36th Street Bistro. But a perhaps unintended consequence is that, with a smaller meal, you eat a little more slowly, taking time with each bite. And at the end, there may actually be room for dessert, such as the delicious chocolate mousse. (Two things to remedy right away: First, if you're serving a steak, send out a proper knife. Second, if you note gluten-free items on the menu, that means they should be prepared with no gluten, period. The pork, braised in porter, has "just a little gluten," we were told.)
There are some more sizable obstacles to overcome. First, service is inconsistent. Some of this I attribute to the confusion over where to go to be seated, as guests arrive through three entrances and are fielded by whichever staff member happens to see them first. Waitstaff do not seem to have clearly defined roles, and it appears there are too many of them for what is needed. Without direction, even a large staff cannot handle a lunch rush, and the staff seem often overwhelmed.
Perhaps a bigger challenge: The garden center closes at 8 o'clock most nights, and so does the restaurant. In summer, especially, the bistro should be open every night until 10, to truly make use of the patio and broaden the audience. Given that option, I'd love to see what 36th Street could become.
Email Alex Kiesig: firstname.lastname@example.org