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.
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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.