Dining review: Meridian gets a welcome but elusive new eatery

SPECIAL TO THE IDAHO STATESMANFebruary 21, 2014 

  • BACKSTAGE BISTRO AT VILLAGE CINEMA

    Address: 3711 E. Longwing Lane, Meridian

    Phone: (208) 995-2943

    Online: cinemawest.com/mer.html Hours: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 11:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday.

    Menu price range: appetizers, soups and salads $5 to $15; sandwiches and burgers $7.50 to $15; entrees $10 to $26

    Libation situation: full bar

    Kid friendly? Yes, but the vibe is grown-up

    Wheelchair accessible? Yes

    Opened: November 2013

The best food at The Village at Meridian also is the hardest to find.

Backstage Bistro, located on the second floor of the Village Cinema multiplex, is an ambitious new restaurant with unusual challenges. From the street, nothing indicates a full-service restaurant inside, and no menu or host awaits you in the main lobby. The VIP areas of the movie theaters are served out of the Bistro kitchen, but they are separate entities. On recent visits on Thursday and Saturday nights, surrounding Village at Meridian restaurants were bustling, yet most tables were empty at Backstage Bistro.

This is unfortunate. It’s not just the food at the bistro — though uneven — that’s better than anything else at The Village. Service is better, too: professional, knowledgeable and thorough.

The dining room is vast and airy, with a huge mural dramatizing the experience of dinner and a movie, set perhaps in Hollywood of the 1920s. With the feel of a casino, there is no specific stylistic touchstone, borrowing from every period of time considered fancy, but anchored by a suburban need to impress with size and scale.

Over the booths on the back wall are Parisianesque canopies; from those seats, you look across the room and over the central, circular bar to a field of televisions showing old movies. Outside on the patio one night, a group gathered around the fire pit, enjoying the view of The Village’s ice rink and fountain below.

Perfect for the fire pit are a couple of interesting winter cocktails. A Pommerelle ($7.50) is a frothy chai with bourbon, and the Villager Toddy ($7.50) is black tea, Calvados brandy and apple cider. There’s a good, basic wine list, and on one night a variety of Crooked Fence beers were on draft.

From appetizers onward, Chef Tal Jude’s menu announces that this is not just food for the movies, but a real restaurant, with intentional plays on classic dishes.

Spanish-style tapas come in versions such as “angry potatoes” ($5): crispy cubes, fried deep brown, with a good tomato-red pepper sauce and garlic aioli. Another appetizer, the ham croquettes ($5), are crisp, creamy fritters, almost liquid at the core, with a delicious dip of peas pureed with yogurt, horseradish, and fresh herbs.

The “caramel corn” calamari ($10.50) had about five perfect bites, where you get the unique combination of sticky chili sauce, chopped peanut and cilantro on the calamari itself. But the toppings were scant, leaving the rest of the calamari plain.

Our group liked the daily flat bread one night (market price; ours was $11), an oblong pizza with cracker-thin crust, topped with English sausage, potato, wilted spinach and blue cheese.

Among entrees, everyone also liked the spaghetti and meatballs ($14), served in a deep, wide-lipped bowl that makes the portion look much smaller than it is. The sauce, pasta and meatballs are all made from scratch, as good an American-Italian dish as you’ll find in the Treasure Valley.

But the $26 steak frites is less than it says it is. Steak and fries is a classic, simple bistro staple, best when not fussed with. Here the hanger steak is delicate and infuriatingly pre-sliced, which makes this small cut lose both temperature and the jus it would retain with proper resting. And the steak looks even smaller next to a haystack of matchstick-thin fried potatoes. These are maddening because you can’t eat them like french fries, and they are too unruly to get on a fork. Last, completely absent were what should have been assertive flavors: blue cheese and chipotle in the compound butter, and grassy herbs in the salsa verde.

The menu recently was revised to draw in a more casual audience. It now features a list of sandwiches and burgers. My wife and I really liked the beet and blue panini ($9.50) with thick slices of roasted beet, blue cheese spread and arugula in toasted sourdough. (The onion straws served with the sandwich are tasty, but are as satisfying to eat, and easy to dip, as a pile of breadcrumbs.) We also enjoyed the onion melt ($9), a kind of reconstruction of the ingredients in French onion soup. Here, a smear of caramelized onion is topped with melted gruyere, between two slices of mild griddled rye. One wonders, though, if these are the kinds of sandwiches that will draw in the bar-and-grill crowd.

Be sure to stop after the movie for dessert and an espresso. The profiteroles ($6) are about perfect: pastry filled with vanilla gelato, draped in warm chocolate. On another night, no one else in our group got even a bite of the brioche bread pudding ($6), with pecans and chunks of chocolate in warm goo; I ate it all.

On paper, the idea of a movie theater with a place to eat makes a great deal of sense. But the food at Backstage Bistro seems too elevated for the popcorn-and-soda masses.

Is it a fancy restaurant, or a place to find some grub before a movie? It wants to be both, which almost never works. It’s hard to imagine someone rushing in for a quick meal and ordering a $26 entrée.

The best plan: Forgo the movie, think of it as a restaurant on its own, and enjoy a meal. There’s nothing else like Backstage Bistro in Meridian, and there should be a place for it.

Email Alex Kiesig: scene@idahostatesman.com

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