Bistro 161

161 Kenneth St, Duncan Mon-Sat 11am-3pm, dinner from 5pm

Best known for its wide array of fast food outlets and crappy family diners, the prospect of a respectable restaurant in Duncan is a wonderful thing.

The recently opened Bistro 161, makes such a promise. Fatima De Silva, formerly the chef at Vinoteca at the Zannata Winery in the Cowichan Valley, has clearly put her heart into the transformation of the new restaurant. Located in downtown Duncan, behind a thick coating of vines and trellises, Bistro 161 and its recent renovation (from the former Gossip's restaurant) provides an intimate ambiance and fairly sophisticated setting. French doors opening onto the garden seating area, makes for a lovely breeze into the restaurant and new paint and skylights allow for lots of light to pass into the space.

We were seated promptly, but the cocktail service was totally absent. We asked, after a prolonged period, for drinks. This was our first inclination that something was wrong with the service.  Perhaps this is country-style service? Maybe things operate at a slower pace than in the hustle and bustle of big city Victoria? Our server was delightful and appeared to be trained in the procedures of fine dining service, but was consistently off her mark with regard to timing, was painfully slow in all respects (that said, I don't think the kitchen was moving too fast either - Patty observed all the staff sitting around the kitchen giggling at one point, while we were waiting for food) and was quite novice in her understanding of food and wine. And, no, it wasn't busy, on this a Monday night - we were one of three tables and it took us three and half hours to eat three courses of food.

Moving on - the menu. While not especially innovative with the grand scheme of things, for Duncan, I was pleased. All the requisites were there, but I was impressed by the two vegetarian selections among the main courses. The wine and beverage list was also notable, not only by its easy to read format, but by the selection of good local wines. It should be a no-brainer to serve lots of local wines, in a wine region, but I was prepared for less. We had the Blue Grouse Ortega and the Winchester Cellars Pinot Noir - both great wines, especially the Pinot - if you get the chance, order this wine (also currently available at a number of restaurant in Victoria, such as Brasserie L'Ecole)

We started with the smoked tuna salad ($10.5), the mussels and clams ($10.5), pomme frites ($4.95) and the antipasti ($6.95). The smoked tuna was pretty much what you'd expect, but the portion was good and the salad and accompanying melon, fresh and presented elegantly. We discouraged Ryan from ordering the local shellfish, since it's out of season, but he insisted as always. The mussels and clams were mediocre in quality, but not bad and the creamy chorizo broth was pleasant. The fries were quite yummy, served with aioli. My antipasti was simple, but good - a classic vegetable antipasti, a backed bulb of garlic and some fresh pesto served with baguette.

For our main we ordered the tenderloin steak ($25), the lamb shank ($23.5) and the duck ($22.95). The steak, served with a whiskey sauce and mashed potatoes and veg, was cooked properly and flavourful, but not mind blowing. The duck similarly, was cooked surprisingly well to med-rare and the sauce was nice and tangy. I thought the portion was a little small or at least it looked that way on top of a huge pile of mashed potatoes. Both dishes were too heavy on the starch and it effected the presentation, which was otherwise attractive. I had the lamb shank with white beans. More or less what I expected, the lamb was braised until break-away soft and the shitake mushroom sauce rich. The beans were a nice change from the usual, but their texture was a little dense. 

The chef/owner Fatima, came out for a chat between our mains and dessert, giving us the goods on the reno and recent developments. We took her dessert recommendation, including an apple crème brulee (comped by the house, because Fatima knew our guest Ryan from Vinoteca) and a chocolate cake ($6).While the apple crème brulee, was not a accurate description of the dish, it was awesome nonetheless. I'd describe it more like a crème caramel with apple instead of caramel. It was a winner. The chocolate cake was less impressive, but I'm not really a chocolate fan, Ryan however gobbled it up. I did like the accompanying whiskey ice cream - very boozy.

Patty and I had dessert wines, he had and the Blue Grouse black muscat and I had the Cherry Point Blackberry port. My port was delicious as usual, but I thought the muscat was a little dry for a dessert wine.

The bill came and was extremely confusing and hard to read. They should really look at the way they deal with this aspect of the meal. We had to send it back for clarification. We left in a state of impatience, because the service had been so painfully slow and awkward. The food however, was good, albeit not overly creative. That said,  I wonder how much of that shortcoming is reflective of the taste of the local market (I know that sounds snotty, but hey, I'm standing by it). I would have liked to see local products better identified on the menu, since I'm sure much of the products are locally sourced and this is information consumers like to see. Bottom line, it's the best food I've ever eaten in Duncan and when the occasion occurs for me to stop for lunch in the Cowichan Valley, Bistro 161 will be at the top of the list - provided I have the time to tolerate the service.

reviewed June 12, 2006