Back in the day, before we were all “foodies” and every meal was documented on Instagram and dissected on Yelp!, before we watched people cook on TV, where we can’t smell or taste any of it, before we knew chefs’ names and talked about them as if we know them, as people, their motivations and personalities and real selves, back before the proliferation of gastropubs and craft cocktail bars and cheeky reimaginings of the cuisines of the entire continent of Asia, before “Spanish” had to be placed before “tapas” to differentiate from unicorns like Italian tapas and Japanese tapas — back before all that there were simply restaurants. And often that one nice restaurant in town that everyone went to and liked.
It’s kind of nice to go back to that feeling sometimes, like revisiting your old college town after a decade or your elementary school as an adult — this is cozy, and familiar, and a little wistful, because this is who you once were. And still are, in many ways, admit it, under whatever layers you have constructed for yourself or have been constructed around you.
These are some of the thoughts the mind might idly entertain during dinner at Bistro 5 in West Medford, in the lulls between bites of Italian-inspired food and sips of wine and conversation with friends across the table. Customers are here to eat, and the food has a point of view without being too distracting, most of the time. It’s right for sharing with people one likes, not for prodding with fingertips while comparing tasting notes and creating a photographic record of dinner that will live in the ether along with all the other records of all the other dinners, phantom meals long digested but still with us.
This is still the nice restaurant people come to in this part of town, although other options, like the new Snappy Pattys, are arriving. Chef-owner Vittorio Ettore opened 15 years ago, renovating Bistro 5 last year. Now it is made up of a few small, connecting rooms lined in brick, with a handsome bar area at the front, an open kitchen hung with copper pans, and harlequin-themed decorations. As a child Ettore loved the commedia dell’arte character, described as “colorful, full of magic and always highly optimistic.” Maybe he identifies. He’s an optimist, at least. He opened a second restaurant, A Tavola, in Winchester in 2011 and for the past five years has been teaching local schoolchildren about growing and preparing food.
But Bistro 5 still feels like his main event. Midweek, it’s got a crowd any downtown restaurant would envy. Bring people from the neighborhood, and they say things like: “Well, we usually share the beets, and then I get the scallops and he gets the veal.” The menu changes enough to keep things interesting, but not so much that they can’t keep saying that year after year.
Dinner kicks off with simple small plates — olives; house-made ricotta with lemon zest; salt cod arancini that are crisp, golden, and greaseless, served with excellent tomato sauce that tastes like ripe garden fruit run through a mill and cooked just enough to bring out the sweetness.
Golden and purple beets are served with honey and goat cheese, a lovely combination. Slivers of duck prosciutto are served atop perfectly dressed, perfectly fresh arugula, bright and peppery: It’s the little things. Also on the plate is a little pot of foie gras creme brulee, decadent, creamy, and fluffy, with toasts for spreading. It needs something fruity for balance, and that’s why bars of melon gelee are here. It’s a fun idea, like old-school canned cranberry sauce refreshed, but the texture is too firm and the flavor too restrained. (With the arrival of fall, it’s been replaced by a Seckel pear coated with smoked nuts.)
Calamari comes with tomato chutney, pickled chiles, and lemon aioli. It’s sweet, sour, and spicy — like a garden-fresh version of Asian chile sauce. We catch the tail end of an heirloom tomato tasting menu, with dishes also available a la carte. A creative take on Caprese salad features “tomatoes” — orbs of tomato gelee filled with fresh mozzarella — alongside actual sliced tomatoes and a tiny, overturned flowerpot out of which spills freeze-dried olive “soil.” This last touch walks a line between cute and silly. Slices of seared tuna look handsome in a pepper crust surrounded by tomato-water foam, pickled red onions, and tomato chips. (The fish itself could use some salt with all that pepper.)
Bistro 5 serves wonderful handmade pasta, in dishes that aren’t always as delicious as the noodles deserve. Strands of squid ink and saffron spaghetti look arresting together, both cooked just right. But the seafood they are tangled around is chewy, dry, and tasteless. Tagliatelle comes with rabbit confit, what is supposed to be red kuri squash but looks and tastes like little bits of carrot, and Swiss chard. Roasted squash should bring this dish needed sweetness; as it is, the flavors are flat.
A quail dish with sweet-and-sour carrots is supposed to have pickled ginger and shiso in the mix, but we can’t taste them, and the birds themselves are quite plain. What we can taste is smoked tomato creme brulee, unusual and delicious, as if an upscale version of Campbell’s cream of tomato soup spent the night by a campfire.
Scallops are perfectly seared in a summer presentation with corn and cherry tomato risotto, pancetta, and zucchini — nothing earth-shattering, just very pleasant and well prepared (and now served with pumpkin risotto). Veal Milanese is coated in pistachio-panko crumbs, crunchy and nutty, with garlic mashed potatoes spiked with a heavy dose of sage and a woodsy porcini sauce; after we add a lot more salt, the dish is very good.
For dessert, chocolate pudding gets fancy with a raspberry-filled pastry “raviolo,” whipped creme fraiche, and caramel sauce. It’s more satisfying than goat cheesecake with persimmon-tomato marmalade and basil gelato, intriguing flavors that don’t quite come together.
Servers can occasionally be clumsy or forgetful, but they are sweetly apologetic and let guests linger. More by-the-glass wine options would be welcome, and the staid cocktail list needs to be revised. I don’t want a nauseatingly fruity French martini before dinner (or ever).
But Bistro 5 is, overall, a lovely neighborhood restaurant with plenty of character. West Medford is lucky to get to keep coming back.
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary ★ ★ ★ Excellent ★ ★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) Poor