John Dough Bakery on University Parkway is already a local favorite, thanks to the incredibly flavorful soups and artisan sandwiches served daily in the bright, high-ceilinged café. Now, thanks to the talented Chef Walt Murawinski, they’re poised to become the best bakery to turn into a bistro since Savory Street. My brother Gordon has been working at John Dough for the past couple of years whilst pursuing a degree in engineering at USF, and when he raved about the nightly specials served at the new "John Dough Bistro," I hastened to taste for myself. My brother is a skilled cook and he loves to eat (almost as much as I do), so I value his opinion very highly when it comes to food. I take my boyfriend Brendan with me to check out the action at John Dough because he is a sandwich afficianado and because he’s so handsome.When we enter the restaurant we are greeted with smiles and enthusiasm from the friendly staff and seat ourselves in a corner booth next to the window. We begin with two cups of soup. I select the French Onion and Brendan claims the Chicken Noodle. I am always thrilled when I don’t have to add seasoning to soup. There’s nothing worse than a bland cup of soup that requires a handful of salt and a truckload of pepper. The French Onion is intense and aromatic with a deep, sweet and savory onion flavor enhanced by the Madeira wine used to flambé the onions. The fresh-baked crostini that comes with the soup looks hard but turns out to be light and crispy, brushed with garlic butter. Brendan’s chicken noodle has that elusive "like Grandma used to make" taste that we all crave when dining out on comfort food classics. Brendan chooses Stella Artois to complement his dining experience and I go for a white wine. Gordon points out that the wine list is very limited but that Total Wine is right next door, and the corkage fee at John Dough is the lowest in town at only $6.50.The next course arrives and my Deconstructed Chicken Pot Pie dwarfs Brendan’s Croque Madame in size but, as we are about to discover, they are evenly matched in terms of yum. The chicken is brined and roasted, and the tender chunks almost melt in my mouth. The savory herb scone is baked in-house and is the best scone that I have eaten since leaving South Africa in 1996. The carrots and celery are slightly al dente and obviously very fresh. The star of this dish, however, is the sauce: an apple brandy and home-made crème fraiche concotion that softens the scone, bathes the chicken and vegetables and has me seriously considering licking my plate.
I almost forget to share with Brendan, even though he is generous enough to let me have the first bite of his sandwich. Croque Madame is the fancy French moniker for a hot ham and cheese topped with a fried egg, and at John Dough, Chef Walt bathes the finished product in a decadent Gruyère sauce. The yolk mixes with the pungent cheese sauce and serves to make us grin happily at each other across the table. The Chef himself stops by to drop off a sample of his macaroni and cheese, and somehow we manage to find room to taste the dish, which is simple and exactly the way you want your mac and cheese to taste: creamy, slightly tangy and topped off with crumbled bacon and scallions.
I’m excited to get the chance to chat with Chef Walt because I’ve heard wonderful things about him, and I’m dying to ask him why his chicken is so tender (as it turns out, it’s all in the brine). I ask Chef Walt about a story my brother has told me regarding September 11, 2001. Chef Walt was attending the French Culinary Institute at the time of the attacks, and he took it upon himself to use his personal funds to purchase and prepare food for the firemen and police officers who spent hours every day at Ground Zero. Chef Walt remembers that one of his instructors, internationally-renowned French chef Jacques Pepin, also came down to the site to try to boost morale and lend a hand, and Walt is happy that one of his idols remembers him in such a positive light.
Chef Walt is overcome with emotion when he talks about those days, and his passion for food is evident when he says, “I love to cook, I love to feed people---this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I hope that he does, and I hope that you’ll stop by John Dough Bistro and try one of Chef Walt’s nightly specials.