Vive la France!
On an island that more closely resembles Martha’s Vineyard than the Bronx there is a treasure trove of nautically inspired eateries, lining City Island Avenue from stem to stern. Among them lies a pearl: Bistro SK, the Bronx’s only French restaurant.
Stephane Kane and Maria Caruso, husband and wife, are co-owners of Bistro SK, and both work their magic in the front of the house. Maria adds thoughtful touches like fresh flowers, a basket of reading glasses for those who left home without them, an array of colorful pashminas if you happen to be chilly and a warm smile for all—while Stephane flexes his well-polished skills as host, orchestrating the dining room like a seasoned conductor, never missing a beat.
Stephane was born and raised in Alsace-Lorraine, France, where he studied hospitality at culinary school, earning a degree in restaurant management. Soon after graduating he worked his way across Europe making his way to Montreal and then to New York City, where he worked at notable restaurants climbing the industry ladder.
His previous position was at Mario Batali’s restaurant Del Posto as a captain, noting this had to be the last time he would work for someone else: “The higher up you go, the less money you make,” he says. Stephane put his years of culinary expertise to work and started a consulting business, helping restaurants fine tune the front of the house, all the while knowing he wanted to open a restaurant.
“I was looking without really looking, you know?” he says. It was fate that a friend who lived on City Island tipped him off about an old restaurant called The Tree House. After having dinner at his friends home on the Island, Maria and Stephane walked by the empty restaurant that very same night. Peeking through the windows, he knew instantly, “I could do something here.” The rest is history.
Inside the charming bistro, you’re transported to Paris—and not because of the Eiffel Tower decked out with white lights sitting beside the front door. It’s the reclaimed hardwood floors throughout the intimate dining room, with personal touches like mismatched salt and pepper shakers, vintage French posters and antique dinnerware—all from the owner’s personal collection. “I built this restaurant myself,” says Stephane. “Literally: the floors, the wallpaper, everything.”
The result is moody and romantic—perhaps the vibe is what carries you over the pond, more than anything. The restaurant is complete with a back courtyard, fit for al fresco dining—private, secluded, quiet. Of course, we have to mention the famous tree, saved from the previous restaurant (it was, after all, called The Tree House), which grows prominently inside the bistro scaling the dining room wall enclosed in glass, preserving what is known on the island as a landmark. Other than a few nautical accents, the restaurant doesn’t subscribe to its Island surroundings, “I want to be different than the other restaurants here. It’s all seafood. Me, I want to be my own identity,” says Stephane.
The menu is outfitted with French classics that highlight what bistro cuisine is meant to be—Escargot Persillade (snails baked in a puddle of garlicky herbaceous butter) and Steak Frites (unctuous grilled hanger steak aggressively seasoned with a side dish of crisp fried potatoes)—quick and casual, like the French equivalent of a diner, but oh so much better. The dishes, while simple and rustic, are rich with history, quality fresh ingredients and are thoughtfully prepared.
“A lot of people, before we opened, would say, ‘I don’t like French food,’” says Stephane. “They didn’t know what they’re talking about, so I said to them, ‘What is French food to you?’ They would say, ‘Small portions, a lot of butter, cream … when you finish with a French dinner, you have to go to McDonald’s because you’re still hungry.’ You know, that was what people thought.”
Now, six years later, it’s clear that none of these statements hold true. Stephane and Maria are converting people to Francophiles one dish at a time. Maria recalls a time when they first opened, offering complimentary escargot to diners, expanding their palates to enjoy snails.
I ask Stephane which dish on the menu he thinks most represents his life, heritage and culture. “How can you ask me that?” he scoffs. “I cannot tell you. It’s part of myself. It’s part of me. I don’t think French food; I live French food.” When asking Maria, “I love that every single dish has its own unique sauce. No two dishes taste the same.” She says “But that’s typical of French cuisine,” adds Stephane, before rattling off a list of dishes, on and off the menu, that speak to his love of his native cuisine—passionate about the attention and care that must go into each dish.
It’s hard to imagine, in a borough of 1.4 million people, densely packed with dining options from around the world, that there is only one French restaurant. But since that’s the case, Bistro SK is as authentic as you can get this side of the Atlantic—a true Parisian escape, surrounded by the Long Island Sound.
For more information visit bistrosk.com/