Dining Therapy

The charming Bistro at Las Candelas has an irresistible sincerity--and plenty of open seating

Some meals ought to be covered by insurance; these meals function as mental health services. There are winter nights when sitting down with a friend, splitting a bottle of wine and eating tasty little things with your fingers is better than Xanax. After an hour of conversation in a beautiful room, with a kindly, relaxed waitress coming and going and the Gypsy Kings playing in the background, life seems worth living, even in the thick of the holidays.

Such was my experience last week at the Bistro at Las Candelas, an almost willfully obscure, offbeat, lovable gem of a place on Limberlost Drive between Stone and First avenues. This is a dark stretch of road in a quiet neighborhood, and my friend Susan and I almost missed the place, even though it was the second time I'd been there. (The first time, in broad daylight, I went right by and had to turn around.) The bistro is actually part of a large and impressive compound; the main business of Las Candelas is hosting and catering receptions and weddings. There's a hall, a formal garden and an office on a big property next to a city park, but even though the separate bistro building sits near the road, it's strangely easy to miss. Barred windows and a hard-to-find front door add to the sense that there might or might not be a restaurant there, and that it might or might not be open.

Not surprisingly, given how hard the place is to find, it was essentially empty both times I was there. That's a shame, because there's a sincerity about Las Candelas that's irresistible.

Susan and I had our pick of any table in the beautiful, color-drenched dining room, and the full attention of the amiable waitress. Dazed by the rigors of the day--it was the night before Thanksgiving, and we'd both been trying to wind up work and shopping in the frantic Wednesday rush--we were in no shape to pick a bottle of wine from the small but interesting list. Our waitress, Cake (same as the dessert), learning that we planned to order from the "Conversational Food" menu of small dishes, went back to consult the chef. She returned with a taste for each of us of the Zenato pinot grigio ($23.50), which we gratefully ordered and (mostly) consumed.

But woman, no matter how harried, cannot live by wine alone, and so we tucked into hummus crostini and vegetarian samosas (both $4.50). The crostini were delicious, although not, strictly speaking, crostini in the original sense, since the small rounds of Italian bread--topped with garlicky white-bean hummus and warm slices of exceptionally savory sausage--weren't fried. (On the other hand, who actually needs fried bread the night before Thanksgiving--or anytime, really?)

The samosas were crisp, with a delicately seasoned potato and lentil filling and a fresh, juicy mint chutney on the side. Finding that we had room for more, we then tried the portobello mushroom stuffed with steamed fennel and other vegetables ($4.50), and leek and onion tartlet with tomato coulis ($5.50). Both were elegant, savory, small dishes, perfect for picking at companionably while we gossiped over a second glass of wine. Susan loved the quiche-like leek and onion pie best, while I, fool for curry that I am, favored the samosas.

Desert was an autumn special just going off the menu--habanera sweet potato cheesecake drizzled with spicy balsamic reduction ($5.50), and all I can say is, too bad you missed it: fluffy, not too sweet and with a fascinating little burn from a sour, habanera-laced drizzle of super-reduced sauce. Toying with the cheesecake and drinking excellent coffee, we were as happy as middle-age women ever get.

I had not been as pleased when I'd had lunch at Las Candelas a week before, in part because I hadn't understood what the restaurant was about. Their specialty is rich, highly flavored food, most of it pre-prepared--the place is, after all, at heart a catering house. If you want a light meal, you need to order carefully, and the three-course lunch ($7.95) may be too much of a good thing. It was for me. Seduced by the wonderful flavor, I ate most of my cup of fantastically rich baked-potato soup (potato, cheese, bacon, sour cream and chives), which ruined my appetite for the salad and hummus plate that followed--and for dinner that night. Those with better gallbladders (or more self-control) might stand it better. My friend Linda and her charming granddaughter, Jordan, who were lunching with me, wisely just tasted the soup, and went on to enjoy their impeccably fresh baby greens salads, quiche Lorraine and leek and onion tart. We all loved the velvety pumpkin cheesecake with whipped cream ($5.50), although the three of us working together couldn't half finish it.

Wild generosity is the hallmark of the Bistro at Las Candelas. Consider yourself warned.

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