Sometimes just good is good enough.
If a marketing firm suggested that slogan for your company, you might start looking for a new marketing firm.
But it’s true. A business can have mostly contented customers without achieving greatness.
Maybe people are willing to settle because the location is irresistibly convenient. Maybe the prices are hard to beat. Maybe the warm, welcoming service keeps them coming back, even if the product could use a little work.
Allow me to introduce Bistro Duet, a good restaurant that aspires to be a great one — but that ultimately may be fine just the way it is, filling an important neighborhood niche.
Bistro Duet debuted on New Year’s Eve, replacing Arlington’s most elegant restaurant, Flora, which closed last summer after 20 years. Flora occupied the historic former Arlington Five Cents Savings Bank, built in 1920, an era when banks were handsome, stately, and proud.
The building deserves a restaurant that matches its stature, and Bistro Duet is a classy concept for a classy space: French cuisine — bouillabaisse, steak frites, coq au vin — with an occasional modern twist.
Case in point: Lobster bisque, usually a decadent affair, is made without dairy. Instead, cream arrives on the side so you can add as much or as little as you like. And chocolate ganache profiteroles, in an unconventional tweak, come with peanut butter pastry cream and foamy banana “froth,” paying homage to that glorious flavor trio.
Which dining room you’re seated in — there are two, each newly renovated — sets the mood for the night. The main one, with its white tablecloths, vaulted ceilings, and open kitchen, is upscale. The bar side is more casual, with oblong stand-up tables where you can enjoy a drink without searching futilely for a place to rest a glass.
In both rooms, gone is Flora’s carpeting, replaced by tile that simulates wood and marble. One questionable design decision: what appear to be large, dark, rectangular wall hangings in the main dining room are, upon closer look, noise absorbers, and rather unsubtle ones.
Note to bargain hunters: East Arlington’s Capitol Theatre is a few doors away, so on Mondays through Wednesdays from 5 to 6 p.m., the restaurant offers a prix fixe menu targeting early moviegoers. At $28 for an entree, appetizer, and dessert, it’s a nice deal.
The salads are simple but satisfying. One, mixed greens with candied cranberries, is crowned by a doughnut-shaped buckwheat cracker studded with pepitas. Another, with oak leaf lettuce, is distinguished by a nutty toasted walnut oil dressing. The frisee salad is a light meal, complete with poached egg, sliced duck, and matchstick-cut fatty bacon.
The soup du jour is often vegan — on one visit potato-leek topped with fennel, on another cauliflower dotted with capers. Both are pureed and wonderfully creamy without a drop of dairy, although they’re undersalted.
Mussels are steamed in fennel and the anise-flavored liqueur Pernod, making a perfect dipping sauce, but the shellfish are sandy. Terrine of pork and duck is delicious on grilled sourdough with a swipe of vinegary-sweet red onion marmalade.
I love the brandade, poached salt cod emulsified with olive oil and potatoes to make it spreadable. It’s wonderfully mild, not fishy. Scoop it up with habit-forming homemade potato chips flecked with fried basil. Salmon rillette is similar, but mayo-thickened, making it heavier.
Entrees are where we enter firmly into just-good territory.
Many dishes are perfectly fine, but there’s an institutional quality about the cooking. Like that served at corporate banquets or charity galas, it elicits neither complaints nor raves.
Perhaps that’s because co-owners Wayne Duprey, the general manager, and Cyrille Couet, the executive chef, have institutional cooking backgrounds. Before opening Bistro Duet, Duprey was assistant food and beverage director at a Four Seasons in Hawaii and Couet was executive chef at Boston University’s business school.
Coq au vin? It’s good — moist chicken leg, red wine sauce, roasted bacon, tender veggies — but the sauce is missing depth and richness.
A vegetarian entree, fried chickpea “Pont Neuf,” looks and tastes like a hybrid of French fries and chicken nuggets. Polenta-like logs of fried chickpea flour, again, they’re good, but what isn’t that’s spent time in a fryolator? Accompanying “vegetable stew” turns out to be a basic ratatouille.
A special of “beef two ways” is short rib and tenderloin, the former tasty but not fork-apart tender; it requires a knife. The tenderloin tastes much like the short rib. If the meat is just fine, the accompanying English pea puree should become a regular side dish.
Some menu descriptions overpromise. The tamarind-braised carrots with the monkfish simply taste like carrots. The pork tenderloin’s dried-blueberry crust tastes no fancier than breadcrumb coating (it’s crumbled brioche).
Duck breast supposedly has honey glaze from a local beekeeper and a five-spice rub of star anise, clove, cinnamon, Szechuan pepper, and fennel seed, but doesn’t deliver those flavors.
Still, the monkfish is nice: meaty cubes wrapped in salty-sweet Serrano ham. So is the pork, tenderized by Dijon mustard and paired with an excellent rough-mashed mixture of broccoli and cauliflower. The duck, also nice — lean medallions atop sunchoke puree.
But what these dishes are missing is a sense of adventure, a mark of distinction, a punch of unforgettable flavor.
There are a few flat-out duds, like a mushy salmon entree special, steak frites with tough sirloin, and lackluster bouillabaisse. Several side dishes need improvement, including bland fava beans and overcooked green beans.
For dessert, Nutella mousse is tantamount to mainlining sugar. Fresh fruit crumble is standard apple crisp. The financiers, chewy almond cakes, are best when dipped in cappuccino.
But good-not-great isn’t keeping people away. Bistro Duet is frequently crowded. I’d go back for cocktails, salad, and soup at the bar. Why? Because the places feels convivial, the staff is friendly (if a bit green), the bartenders are genial and unpretentious, prices aren’t extortionate, and it’s a sophisticated alternative to the casual restaurants that dominate this swath of the ’burbs.
Over time, Bistro Duet may need to elevate its cooking to keep its 110 seats full, but it’s currently providing something this neighborhood wants and is grateful to have. For now, just good is good enough.
190 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, 781-316-8808, www.bistroduet.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices: Appetizers $7-$12. Entrees $18-$29. Desserts $6-9 (cheese plate $13)
Hours: Daily 5-10 p.m. (bar open till 11 p.m. Sun-Wed and till midnight Thu-Sat), Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Noise level: Moderate
What to order: lobster bisque, brandade, terrine, duck breast, pork tenderloin with cauliflower-broccoli mash