The concept at Brontë, the restaurant inside Joseph-Beth Booksellers, is simple really: Put a cookbook-themed café inside a bookstore where, perhaps not coincidentally, some of those cookbooks are sold. But, as anyone who has ever used a cookbook knows, there is almost infinite variation, depending on skill and commitment, between the page and the execution; the truth of this was confirmed by my two visits to Brontë.
I'm open-minded, and while the theme seemed a little gimmicky and cute for my taste, I believe in borrowing from the best.
So it was disappointing one evening when almost every dish I tasted was flawed.
At that particular dinner, for example, an appetizer of two Southwestern-style crab cakes ($8.99) with corn and chopped bell peppers was soggy and had very little crab. They were served with a spinach salad and a small cup of "soy aioli" with hints of ginger and sesame oil. Southwestern and Asian fusion don't mix. The inspiration for this dish was not attributed to any particular cookbook.
An entree of zinfandel pot roast ($12.99) was adapted from The Joy of Cooking. Checking my copy afterward, the recipe called for salt "to taste." But at Brontë, I definitely could taste the generous dose in this dish, as well as in the sides: buttery and sweet carrot slices and a scoop of chunky mashed potatoes slathered with dark brown gravy.
Supposedly from one of Ina Garten's cookbooks, apparently The Barefoot Contessa at Home, Eli's Asian salmon ($15.99) had a light whisper of soy sauce and sesame oil. But I didn't detect any of the recipe's scallions or chili paste that would have added a "wow" factor. It was also heavy with greasy panko, or Japanese bread crumbs. Zucchini, yellow squash, cherry tomatoes and red onion slices added color but had a faint burnt odor that was unpleasant. The "green" rice had nothing green in it.
Add to all this a small glass of pinot grigio ($7) and a Boddington's ale ($4.25), and the best thing I can say is the service was outstanding.
One meal, however, does not a restaurant review make, so I went back for lunch, one that turned around my opinion of the kitchen.
Brontë's baked chicken avocado wrap ($8.99) might be the best wrap I have ever tasted: bite-size pieces of smoky grilled chicken, black beans, a diced avocado salsa with corn and bits of red onion, a little cilantro and lots of jack cheese that melted inside the piping hot tortilla. The tortilla's texture was exceptional; rather than the rolled-up cousin of cardboard we've all confronted, this one was supple, tender and just right to the bite. It's lovely when something so simple can be this satisfying.
I ordered a slice of peanut butter pie ($4.99) because I was told it is made in house. It's a must-try, even if you can only finish a few forkfuls. The bottom was a light graham cracker crust; the peanut butter filling, as fluffy as mousse, was probably 2 inches high; and the layer of frosting on top was like a chocolate ganache. It was the definition of dessert decadence.
Given the wide disparity between the two experiences, I am worried about Brontë's ability to deliver consistency. But I'll give it a hopeful three stars on the strength of some fine service and a very delicious lunch.
Dinner for two was about $65, but I recommend lunch at $18 or so per person. And if you happen to end up there solo, you can always get a good book to read.