Let me first apologize for telling you about Georges French Bistro on a day when, in all likelihood, you’ll never get in.
It’s Valentine’s Day weekend, after all, and getting into Wichita’s most popular new restaurant is pretty difficult on a regular Thursday evening.
Longtime Wichita chef George Youssef, known for past Wichita restaurants such as Nouvelle Cafe and Uptown Bistro, opened the restaurant in the former Bella Luna space at 4618 E. Central in early November, and it has very quickly developed a following. His focus is simple, French bistro-style dishes – escargot, mussels, steak frites, crepes, creme brulee and the like – and Wichita diners are into it. It’s difficult to get a seat at Georges without a reservation, even at lunch or on typically slow weeknights. I can’t remember the last time a non-chain restaurant opened to such a reception in Wichita.
The crowd is interesting, too. Each time I’ve been, the parking lot is filled with Mercedes and Acuras and BMWs. Inside, the seats are filled with a who’s who of Wichita. On a recent weeknight, I spied one of Wichita’s most prominent real estate agents dining a few tables away from one of Wichita’s most well-known businessmen. Many of the other seats were occupied by some of city’s best known doctors and lawyers.
At lunch the next week, I saw City Manager Robert Layton dining with Wichita State University president John Bardo. (Hmmmm. What could they be discussing?) Nearby, Wichita bar and restaurant owner Schane Gross was conducting a business meeting. The restaurant was so busy, all of the outdoor patio tables were filled with diners, and it was only a moderately warm February day.
What’s all the fuss? I think it’s the menu, which is a refreshing departure from the steak/burgers/pasta/salad formula too many of Wichita’s new restaurants follow. Georges’ menu is filled with classically prepared bistro dishes that Wichitans who’ve traveled to France might have enjoyed while there, and the ambiance – dim lighting, white tablecloths and servers in black vests and ties – makes the dining experience feel special.
And still, the prices are reasonable. The most expensive dinner entree is $34 for a 8-ounce cut of beef tenderloin, but most entrees are more like $13 to $20. Youssef is offering a type of cuisine and experience missing in Wichita, and he’s doing it without any show off-y ingredients or preparations.
That’s not to say I’ve loved everything I’ve eaten at Georges. But I’ve loved enough and enjoyed myself enough while there, to be able to heartily recommend the restaurant to anyone who asks me, “Where’s the new place to go in Wichita these days?” You’d be surprised how many people ask me that.
When you do manage to get in to Georges, order the French onion soup. I haven’t had a good one in years, and Georges’ is beautifully served in a classic white footed soup bowl. The dark brown broth has a deep flavor and is full of tender bites of caramelized onions, and the topping is toasted bread covered with gruyere cheese that’s melted until it’s browned, crispy and dripping down the sides of the bowl. I shamelessly picked every one of those crunchy cheese bits off the bowl and ate them when I was done.
The dinner appetizer menu includes escargot, which I admit I’d never tried. Georges serves the delicate morsels out of the shell atop a mushroom cap, then drowns them in garlic butter and herbs and serves them hot in a white dish with a side of toasted baguette. The escargot have a texture similar to mushrooms and no distinct flavor, so the dish is really just a vehicle for all that garlicky, buttery goodness. We ate all six quickly.
We also ordered what turned out to be a generous serving of calamari – large strips with a thick but not greasy breading piled high and served with a side of cocktail sauce and a basil aoili, both served in tiny lion head bowls. The calamari was just the right amount of chewy, and the breading was crispy without being heavy. Although the sauce was advertised as a basil aoli, I tasted tarragon and couldn’t stop eating the calamari until all that sauce was sopped up.
Although we didn’t order it because of an allergy at the table, I couldn’t help but admire the giant bowl of mussels served at the neighboring table. You don’t see that in Wichita too often. Georges, by the way, also has a raw bar with oysters and other offerings each day.
From the entree menu, I eagerly selected steak frites, the dish I miss most from the former Uptown Bistro, which Youssef once co-owned. This is not that dish. The grilled sirloin was still tender and was cooked to medium rare as I requested, but the fries were meatier truffle fries instead of the crispy shoe strings I remember. I’ve developed a love for truffle fries, though, and the pungent aroma and flavor was a good match for the meat. The only thing I didn’t like was the sauce poured over the meat. It was a L’Entrocote de Paris sauce, heavy with butter, cream and thyme, and it masked the flavor of the sirloin. I’ll ask for it on the side next time so I can control its presence.
We were least happy with the duck confit, which came with a leg piece so dark, its appearance was unappetizing. The meat was tender and moist, but it was also a bit gamey. It was served with a side of cannellini beans, roasted corn and a little salad. We also tried the chicken Paillard, a pounded chicken breast seasoned with thyme and Parmesan. The chicken itself was dry, and the flavor of the sauce was flat. Salt helped save the dish, as did the potato Parisienne served on the side. The potatoes are scooped into balls then fried in butter and oil until they have a crispy exterior but a creamy interior, making them a bit of a French-fry mashed potato hybrid.
The salads at Georges are events rather than starters. I’m no fan of beets, but my dining companion ordered the beet salad, and I was surprised. The beets were fresh and didn’t have that earthy, dirty flavor of the picked beets of my childhood, and they were served on top of fresh greens with sliced pears, hazelnuts, a honey-based dressing and – best of all –a fried goat-cheese medallion, crispy on the outside but thick and creamy on the inside. That and the combination of the sweet pears and salty nuts made the dish. I also loved the panzanella salad, which was greens topped with cucumbers, olives, buttery homemade croutons, feta cheese, tomatoes and a citrusy red wine vinaigrette that added acid and sweetness.
Georges offers different menus at lunch and dinner. The restaurant doesn’t get the white linens out at lunch, and the restaurant is filled with light from the south-facing windows. That’s when I tried my favorite dish at Georges, although it was so calorically horrifying, I’ll never order it again unless I have at least three other people to share it with. The croque madame is the most gluttonous grilled cheese you’ve ever had, made on thick brioche that’s filled with smoky ham and gruyere cheese then covered in creamy bechamel sauce and more cheese, then topped with an egg. This is a fork-and-knife sandwich, as it’s so thick and messy, you’ll never be able to pick it up. The nutty, salty cheese and the smoked ham combined well, and anything covered in bechamel is going to be good. It would have been even more of a messy masterpiece had the egg on top been cooked over-easy. But it comes over-hard, unless you specify otherwise. The sandwich came with a side of crispy skin-on fries.
We also tried some of the savory crepes at lunch, both the seafood-filled crepe Josselin and the chicken-and-mushroom crepe Josephine. Both were beautifully presented with peppery, crispy arugula on top. Both were fine, but they’re not as substantial or flavor-filled as the other dishes on the menu.
For dessert, we had the creme brulee, served in a large dish that offers a lot of crispy sugar surface but not much custard depth. The custard was cold and perfectly eggy, and it was served with a fresh raspberry, blackberry and a delicate homemade macaroon on the side. Other dessert offerings include chocolate croissant bread pudding and various sweet crepes. All are made in-house.
The servers at Georges are professional, efficient and well-dressed. And go easy on the hostess. It’s not her fault that you can’t get a table.
Georges French Bistro
Where: 4618 E. Central, 316-831-1325
Type of food: French bistro
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Price range: Appetizers are $8 to $13; salads are $7 to $15; entrees are $9 to $34
Alcohol: Full bar