Author: Frank Dunne Jr. | Photographer: Photography by Anne
“You come in here. The sun is going down beyond the harbor. You hear a little jazz music. It doesn’t get much better than that,” is how Bistro 17 owner Jim Buckingham describes part of the experience at the French bistro he almost didn’t open seven years ago. After years at the Santa Fe Café helm, Buckingham was thinking retirement until Shelter Cove Harbour’s management convinced him to take a look at a vacant restaurant unit. “I didn’t really think I would be interested,” he said, “but once I came down and saw the space and how beautiful it was, it looked like a bistro to me.”
It was enough to evoke a change of heart, and he got right to work, spending a year developing recipes and a menu with French chef Mark Beck before opening Bistro 17’s doors in 2008. Today, Buckingham and current chef de cuisine Adam Guzman continue serving up delectable country French creations in an expanded, but still intimate and casual bistro overlooking Shelter Cove Harbour.
French cuisine is an often-misunderstood expression. Folks tend to associate it exclusively with haute French cuisine (that’s a fancy way to say fancy) and its extremely formal presentations, weird parts of the animal that you wouldn’t ordinarily consider eating and very high prices. The truth is there are all different French cuisine styles, and carte du jour at Bistro 17 is country French, a simpler more approachable style and preparation for the average palate, and more befitting the intimate, casually elegant bistro concept. “I’m not sure people realize what country French is,” Buckingham said. “It’s not Chateaubriand and the most incredibly fancy French food that you may think about when you think of French cuisine.”
Bistro 17 keeps it simple and familiar. There’s nothing on the menu that you haven’t seen before and little need to ask your server for help with pronunciation. It’s the preparation, the flavors and textures and the incredible sauces that make French cuisine…well…French cuisine. Start off with French Onion Soup Gratinée (au gratin), Coquilles Saint-Jacques (seared scallops, mushroom and shallot cream sauce) or a salad with frisee lettuce (an endive), warm bacon vinaigrette and a soft poached egg.
CLOCKWISE FROM RIGHT: VIEW FROM BISTRO 17’S PATIO OVERLOOKING THE MARINA; WILD SALMON ; GRILLED BONE-IN RIBEYE WITH POMME FRITES
A sampling of the menu’s dinner entrées includes Peppered Mustard Salmon (wild salmon served with peppered mustard, mixed greens, pine nuts, dried cranberries, red onions and Roquefort), or Duck Confit served with haricots verts (that’s green beans to you and me), roasted garlic pommes puree and a cabernet and raspberry reduction sauce. Are you all about meat and potatoes? Then go for a grilled bone-in rib eye with herb butter, béarnaise sauce and pomme frites (French fries).
See? Nothing intimidating so far. On a visit to inform this article, my dining companion and I set the menu aside in favor of the evening’s specials; as luck would have it, one of my all-time seafood faves, grilled mahi-mahi, was among the choices. Guzman’s preparation, with a shallot and basil buerre blanc served over rice pilaf, was as good as any I’ve ever had. My companion enjoyed filet mignon with a garlic, red onion and thyme cabernet reduction. Of course we shared, so I can speak to the filet as well; it was melt in your mouth delicious. Cliché? Perhaps. But it fits.
The lunch menu also offers familiar choices, prepared with a Bistro 17 French flair, and some that are just plain familiar. Croque monsieur is a grilled ham and Swiss sandwich with béchamel sauce, or you can opt for a good old patty melt. Lunch specials include chicken crepes (mushrooms, caramelized onion, roasted red peppers and spinach topped with parmesan and roasted garlic cream sauce) or a classic omelet with bacon, Swiss cheese, mushrooms and onion.
Since you’re probably wondering, yes you can enjoy Bistro 17’s extraordinary French cuisine without a major assault on your bank account. Menu items are very competitively priced for the market, and the same is true for the complete wine list. Choices range from Portillo malbec or Sterling sauvignon blanc by the glass, or you can splurge a little with a Cakebread Cellars chardonnay or Jordan cabernet by the bottle.
The food alone is reason enough to dine at Bistro 17, but the setting and atmosphere are as big a part of the story. Although Buckingham expanded the interior dining room from 21 seats to 45 seats four years ago, it retains a cozy intimacy. The expansion allowed space for a full bar, which was previously lacking, and room for live entertainment. Teri and Larry Kopp share their jazzy interpretations on Mondays and Tuesdays and Jay Samuels tickles the ivories the rest of the week. Patio seating overlooking the harbor completes the picture. With those famous Hilton Head Island sunsets, a little breeze coming off Broad Creek, mellow jazzy notes wafting through the air and fabulous country French fare, Bistro 17 is al fresco dining as good as it gets.
Bistro 17 is located at Shelter Cove Harbour, 17-D Harbourside Lane, Hilton Head Island. (Walk past the Neptune statue and turn right). Reservations are gladly accepted; call (843) 785-5517. For more information, visit Bistro17HHI.com or Facebook.com/Bistro17HHI.com.