Executive chef Karim Bouzammour attended to the Bistro 1130 patrons as if they were invited guests in his home. Beaming with pride, he spoke to each table at length about Moroccan cuisine's rich heritage, going so far as to bring samples of the night's offerings to patrons who could not make up their minds. When asked what to order, he didn't hesitate: "Get the tagine."
Bouzammour's enthusiasm stoked my expectations; as he talked, I could already taste the harissa, dates, preserved lemon and mint. Unfortunately, what showed up to my table was a watered down, Americanized version of the North African cuisine. I was confused. How could a place that espouses such pride in its culinary heritage fail to let its greatness shine?
Bistro 1130 is located in Town and Country Crossing, the west-county, pedestrian-friendly shopping development filled with trendy fitness centers, a designer cloth diaper store and a variety of other higher-end strip-mall staples. Hoping to capitalize on the foot traffic, owner Mikki Jones and Bouzzamour created a menu that would appeal to as broad of an audience as possible. Apparently, the restaurant's former iteration — a French restaurant — failed to cast a wide enough net, so Jones and Bouzammour rebranded the space as a Mediterranean restaurant in February.
In addition to a menu overhaul, the space received a facelift that reads like a Russian oligarch's dining salon. Pearlescent white leather booths line the walls, and shiny black chairs with gold accents fill the room. Its patio, however, is understated and lovely. Overlooking a manmade lake, the woven chairs and Middle Eastern music made me feel like I was on vacation. (Probably in Florida rather than Nice, but who's complaining?)
Although bold letters on its website tout "authentic Moroccan cuisine," the restaurant bills itself as Mediterranean. While this allows it to draw from no less than 21 vastly different culinary traditions, it creates a menu that is all over the place (and at times, surprisingly, not at all Mediterranean). I began with the goat-cheese turnover appetizer — a gooey, phyllo-wrapped fried cheese treat served with a side of Bistro 1130's ubiquitous sharmola tomato sauce (think chunky marinara with a hint of cumin). The falafel appetizer was a fine example of the Middle Eastern chickpea fritter. Texture-wise, it was smooth, almost hummus-like in the center with a crispy exterior. Another starter, the saffron lobster bisque, was served with a sprig of tarragon, which mitigated the almost over-the-top richness.
Bouzammour insisted we try the fresh sardines, and I'm glad we took him at his word. The small but meaty fish are stuffed with herbs and drizzled with a little lemon juice. This was the one time during the meal when I felt as if I was enjoying an authentic Mediterranean delicacy.
The "Black and Blue" flatbread, however, missed the mark. The small pieces of balsamic-marinated steak were overcooked and chewy, as were the Portobello mushrooms. Even a truffle-oil drizzle could not save the dish.
The short-rib preparation was the better of the two tagines I tried. The pot was filled with the succulent braised meat, fennel, potatoes, tomatoes, peas and a sesame caramelized prune. It was fair, though it needed some seasoning. The lamb tagine, on the other hand, was nothing more than a gimmicky way of serving lamb meatball Parmesan. The lamb and beef meatballs were covered in sharmola tomato sauce and topped with a hunk of melted mozzarella cheese. This, too, was a bit bland.
The lamb couscous, also cooked in a tagine, was much more authentic. The tender lamb sat atop the moist Moroccan pasta and was topped with a cornucopia of vegetables (carrots, zucchini, cabbage, peppers) and chickpeas. The lamb's braising liquid infused the dish with flavor, but again, it could have used more seasoning and herbs.
The crabmeat-stuffed salmon (here I really struggled to make the Mediterranean connection) was salty, and the fish was overcooked. The halibut was cooked perfectly, but it was covered with so much of the restaurant's sharmola sauce that it hid the delicate flavor of the fish. My favorite dish, the fig-and-pine-nut-stuffed pork, deliciously balanced the bitterness of the grill char with jammy figs. A simple port-wine reduction added an additional pleasantly sweet element
Desserts were typical, well-executed bistro fare. The chocolate mousse was generously spiked with Grand Marnier and served in a buttery almond and caramel cup. White chocolate crème brûlée was straightforward decadence, although the accompanying doughnuts were too dense.
Bistro 1130 is at its best when it embraces its Moroccan theme with full force, but falters when it feels the need to Americanize. Surely, the folks of Town and Country Crossing will support a well-done North African spot over a so-so bistro. Perhaps a third rebrand will be the charm.