2004 Patriot Ledger Review

TASTE & TELL: Bia a jewel of a bistro in Cohasset
By VIRGINIA HAYES
The Patriot Ledger

Seasons restaurant in the Millennium Bostonian Hotel has launched a virtual solar system of culinary stars over the past 25 years, among them Lydia Shire, Tony Ambrose and Jasper White.

Brian Houlihan became the executive chef there in 1998, and like many of his predecessors, has chosen to strike out on his own. But instead of making a big splash in the Boston pond, he and his wife chose the charming village of Cohasset in which to test the water, opening a little jewel of a bistro called Bia.

Although Irish by birth, Houlihan’s heart is in the south of France, his menu reminiscent of one to be found in the back streets of Nice, where the influence is equal parts French and Italian.

Sophisticated comfort food is the order of the day, with a menu that promises to change as the seasons do, and in fact, has already undergone a few tweaks in the course of our visits. Classic French appetizers, wood-grilled pizzas and a nice smattering of seafood, poultry and beef transport diners to the sunny Mediterranean. His one nod to his native country, colcannon, an Irish staple consisting of mashed potatoes and kale, has quietly disappeared, to be replaced by gorgonzola mashed potatoes.

In what was once the home of RGP (Really Great Pizza), Houlihan’s wife has morphed the former sandwich shop into a warm, welcoming 40-seat restaurant that oozes romance. Deep garnet walls, rich tapestries and an old wooden floor that has been buffed to a soft buttery glow set the scene, as candlelight is reflected in the mirrors set about the walls. And hopefully, when the warmer weather arrives, they’ll take full advantage of the charming brick patio out front to encourage dining al fresco.

We met up with friends, and after ordering a bottle of deLenardo pinot grigio ($6 glass/$19 bottle) to share, we got down to the business of eating. The steamed P.E.I. mussels ($9) were a step above the usual mariniere style, bathed as they were in a light saffron cream sauce. They quickly made the rounds at the table, as did the braised veal cheek with wild mushroom risotto ($9). The tender veal simply melted away on the tongue, and the earthy risotto was cooked to unctuous perfection.

The wild mushroom vol au vent with truffled cream sauce ($6), although classic in its presentation and quite delicious, was absent of any truffle flavor. The wood-grilled pizzetta with prosciutto di parma and caramelized Vidalia onions ($11) was a free form affair with a wonderfully chewy crust and generous toppings.

Two beautiful steaks are available; the grilled sirloin ($23) is accompanied by gorgonzola mashed potatoes and whisker-thin haricots verts, and the bistro classic hanger steak au poivre ($20) was sliced and served over potatoes Lyonnaise, a sort of sophisticated version of homefries. The au poivre sauce lacked a little punch, but the meat was ordered ‘‘black and blue,” (cold in the center, charred on the outside) and both cuts were superior, with a texture like pudding.

Local bouillabaise ($22/$28) can be ordered with or without lobster, and is an updated version of Marseilles’ own stew. Rather than a simmered soup filled with assorted varieties of fish, this dish consists of quickly cooked shellfish – mussels, shrimp, clams and half a lobster – in a savory saffron broth with a bit of risotto and a bright green ribbon of haricots verts for color. The roasted chicken provençal ($17) was another bistro staple, napped in a lovely reduction sauce, topped with the same haricots verts and a bit of roasted red pepper for eye appeal.

Citrus glazed duck with duck leg confit ($22) rounded out the choices, the confit showcasing the chef’s command of traditional cuisine bourgeoise.

A bottle of Rodney Strong zinfandel ($38) managed to complement each meal quite nicely. An excellent espresso ($3) served as dessert for one friend, but the rest of us needed to sample a few of the offerings. The molten chocolate cake with java bean ice cream ($6) was just large enough to satisfy a sweet tooth at the finish of a filling meal. The individual tarte tatin with vanilla bean ice cream ($6) inspired dreams of Normandy, and the crème brulee ($6) was dead on as well.

Although Chef Houlihan has been heard to admit that the transition from large hotel kitchen to small ‘‘mom and pop” bistro was a bit daunting at first, this restaurant has managed to get its legs underneath it quickly, letting us start the year on a very high note. Viva Bia!

BIA – 35 South Main St., Cohasset 781-383-0464. Non-smoking. Not handicap accessible. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Tues.-Sun.; brunch 10-3 p.m. Sun.

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Copyright 2004 The Patriot Ledger
Transmitted Wednesday, January 14, 2004