This past week, we were honored by an invitation to the soft opening of downtown Columbia’s newest restaurant, Trey Bistro. We’ve been looking forward to this opening for a while now, and were excited to sample the possibilities of this latest venture. Though we’re hardly impartial reviewers, as friends and admirers of Trey’s cooking & support for local foods, we were still thoroughly impressed with the experience and suspect that even those who don’t care about local foods will appreciate the restaurant for the simple reason that the food is so good. Trey seeks out the best, most flavorful ingredients possible and prepares them in creative ways, the result being really delicious food. You can read a nice roundup of the restaurant’s background and opening menu here in the Tribune; we’ll share our own experiences below the break.
We showed up right at 5pm Thursday, the opening hour of the first of three soft-opening nights, as the best night for us and early enough to enjoy a meal before heading back to do animal chores before dark. We had the place almost to ourselves at first, though it filled in admirably as time went on, and I’ve heard it was pretty well packed all three nights overall. We worked our way right down the menu (free for soft-opener invitees), sampling pretty much everything vegetarian, which was a lot.
Over the course of several conversations that evening, Trey expressed to us his desire to really feature vegetables throughout the menu and make the food accessible to diners of all tastes and ethics. He intends to offer vegan and gluten-free dishes consistently, while still doing worthwhile things with meats and all the diversity local producers can provide. I think his loosely-defined Midwestern Bistro concept gives him a very broad brush to be creative and seasonal, giving him the flexibility to really work well with local producers like us. Too often in our opinion do vegetables play second fiddle to meats when dining out; non-meat dishes at restaurants often seem to be afterthoughts or sops to “unusual” people rather than dedicated, worthwhile culinary choices on their own. The opening night menu here showed Trey’s dedication to giving vegetables their due without being a vegetarian restaurant.
Even the people we ran into on Thursday evening spoke to Trey’s dedication to seek out the best & most flavorful of local foods: Jenn Muno of Goatsbeard Farm was delivering cheese just about the time we arrived, and we crossed paths with Leslie and Liberty of The Salad Garden when they came in to dine later that evening.
We opened with two salads: watermelon/cucumber/feta/balsamic and mixed green with peppercorn dressing. Both were reasonably sized, well-presented, and showed off the flavors of the ingredients well. The watermelon salad was a perfect example of what we think will make this restaurant great: A reliance on fresh, high-quality ingredients with excellent flavors, combined by a creative chef in ways that we wouldn’t think to do at home. Yum. There was some chopped on bacon on the green salad that hadn’t appeared on the menu; a simple kitchen mix-up that one should expect on an opening night.
We tried the pizza and creamy tomato soup. The former was a happy reminder of Red & Moe; thin-crust, excellent balance of good cheese and toppings, proper size for an appetizer. The tomato soup was very well done, with the unexpected addition of a few (roasted?) halved cherry tomatoes that added intense flavor bursts.
There were pork and beef dishes on the menu, though we didn’t try them. The meat in this case came through food service channels; however, the server told us that in general Trey will be sourcing meat locally. We did split the black bean cakes, which were a fantastic example of how to present good vegetarian food that doesn’t seem vegetarian. Good beans can speak for themselves with robust flavor and good toppings, and these came through wonderfully.
We made room for chocolate torte and cheesecake, both of which were as enjoyable as the rest.
We’re normally very light drinkers, particularly in the summer, but hit things a bit harder than usual to help pay the restaurant back for all the free food (drinks were not). A couple glasses of interesting wines, ordered from a server who gave good descriptions and advice for an opening night, followed by a mixed drink each, a true rarity for us. Joanna found her drink (can’t remember the name) too coffee-strong, which isn’t necessarily a criticism since we’re neither of us coffee drinkers; it did pair nicely with the chocolate torte, though. We both loved mine, a ginger-whiskey drink (the Crazy Horse?) that was dangerously delicious. This was the other reason we showed up right at 5; to give our low-tolerance selves time to slowly indulge in more than our usual one-per-night rule.
The service was slightly slow, but no more than one would expect on an opening night, and completely fine with us as our goal was to take our time through the meal. Our server was knowledgeable and friendly, hitting the right balance between checking in and leaving us alone. This was really a very diverse, very interesting meal that will only get better over time as Trey adds dishes and diversity. As I’ve written elsewhere, one of the things we like most about his approach to cooking is his willingness to buy produce in bulk and preserve it for later use; this has great benefits to farmers and allows the restaurant to maintain its local/quality ethic throughout the year. He’s already ordering large quantities of garlic from us, along with tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, sweet & hot peppers, and herbs, single-handedly making us feel better about the rest of the year and our lost summer of low restaurant sales.
As hard as we work on this farm, we’re in awe of the work and risk Trey and his wife Jessie have taken on in starting this ambitious restaurant with a young baby. He seemed pretty exhausted when I delivered more produce on Monday afternoon, sitting quietly on the couch with Landon as I trans-loaded vegetables into tubs for him, but happy to finally have the whole project underway. We really hope they can draw good crowds to downtown with their unique and highly worthwhile approach to excellent food, and encourage everyone reading this to stop in and get them off to a good start. They’re off to a damn good start and it’ll only get better. Now they
just need a website for me to link to at least have a Facebook page. In the meantime, here are hours & location:
21 N 9th St, Columbia
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.