Mastering Modern American

It started as a dream and a market on Eighth Street for Travis Tucker and Tina Patel in 2008. Half a decade later, Bleu Restaurant & Wine Bar has become one of Columbia’s largest culinary creators, serving comfort food with impeccable style in its expanded downtown digs at 811 E. Walnut St.

“We want to take what’s comfortable to people and put a twist on it,” says Travis Tucker, Bleu owner and manager. “Something that’s not quite what you’re used to. Instead of just mac ’n’ cheese, we do something a little different but still classic. We take what’s comfortable and what people love and add something more interesting to it, a new flavor, a new texture, a new perspective that gives it a different appeal.”

To celebrate five years of Bleu’s modern American appeal, Tucker and the restaurant’s market and event manager Chandra Valentine reveal the restaurant’s healthy outlook for 2014.

Going Gluten-Free
Becoming Columbia’s first local restaurant to be certified by the National Celiac Association as a destination for gluten-free dining is among Bleu’s proudest moments, Tucker says.

“We were the first ones to do that in Columbia, and if we tell you it’s gluten-free, it truly is,” he says. “Some diners might think a menu item should be gluten-free, but because they may come in contact with some type of other foods that may not be, we’re cautious. We’ve really been sensitive to that and other dietary needs, because our diners’ needs have changed so much.”

Bleu’s gluten-free offerings include its signature Curry & Red Lentil Vegetable Soup, Roasted Red Pepper Hummus, salads, antipasto, Chipotle Bleu Pork Wings, Prosciutto-Wrapped Scallops and Bacon-Stuffed Shrimp. Entrées such as Shrimp & Grits or a 12-ounce beef ribeye with roasted shallot mashers leave diners feeling anything but deprived. For dessert, there’s Maple Cranberry Crème Brûlée.

Customers looking for gluten-free options don’t have to search very hard — just look for the menu items marked with a small “g” and request gluten-free preparation. Valentine stresses the importance of diners alerting wait staff of their dietary restrictions. Bleu’s kitchen has strict procedures for ensuring that foods served as gluten-free don’t come into contact with other ingredients in the kitchen.

Meals To Refuel
Tucker has seen a significant increase in diners imposing restrictions on their choices, whether from health concerns or calorie counting. The restaurant caters to this mindset, offering healthier options for some of its signature dishes, Tucker says.

“People just don’t order off the menu anymore, due to dietary restrictions that they’ve self-imposed or from a physician,” Tucker says. “With that in mind, Scott Schutte at Columbia Strength & Conditioning knew that we did that, and he contacted us to do PureFit meals. Knowing that we can create meals that are incredibly healthy is really exciting.”

Bleu creates meals following specific high-protein, low-carbohydrate requirements for PureFit customers. Each ready-to-eat meal is made from scratch, featuring fresh local produce and containing the necessary protein, calories and fat for Columbia Strength & Conditioning clientele.

Entrées run the gamut of Paleo-inspired cuisine — pan-seared trout with summer squash, bacon frittata with salsa, beef Bolognese with spaghetti squash, Jamaican pepper pot, Asian pork wrap with sesame green beans and more.

“Our PureFit meals are gluten-free, dairy-free … they’re mostly just protein and vegetables,” Tucker says. “It’s a very healthy alternative to lunch or dinner and the appropriate amount of fat, proteins and calories. It’s fresh, made-from-scratch food that is good for you and tastes good, too.”

A Healthy Wine List
Last fall, Bleu unveiled a new wine list for vino fans thirsty for options.

“Our wine list had many wines on there that were uncomfortable to people and our diners were afraid of them,” Tucker says. “We’ve got to have some comfort wine on there. There has to be some wine that people know how to say and that people will enjoy and love to drink.”

The more approachable wine list features some interesting new labels. Popular whites include California’s La Terre Chardonnay and Movendo Moscato, a fruity sweet wine from Puglia, Italy. Bleu has refreshed its red list with a cherry/plum “Sandstone” Merlot from Wente Vineyards in California’s Livermore Valley; a light-bodied Santa Barbara Pinot Noir from SeaGlass; and rich but bitter-free Dark Horse Cabernet Sauvignon from Lodi, Calif.

Tucker says Bleu’s wine list features something for everyone — from oenophiles to those just beginning their exploration of fine wine.

“Wine is one of those things that if you’re a little familiar with it, you want to learn more, but there’s no end to learning wine,” he says. “You just achieve wine knowledge.”

Bartender Aaron Brown has created four new cocktails for the restaurant: a Chilean brandy-based Pisco Sour, ginger beer concoctions with vodka (Moscow Mule) or whiskey (Horse Feather) and the sweet and spicy Bleu Flame, a blend of vodka, pineapple juice and jalapeno-cilantro syrup with an apple and red wine reduction.

The Spice Of Variety
Bleu’s catering and contract meal services are a large part of the restaurant’s expanding business.

“Our restaurant acts as a storefront for catering and food service,” Tucker says. “Much like a brick-and-mortar store that offers sales online, we see that is where we’re going to have the most growth and push for the most growth, while we retain the most positive reputation for our restaurant.”

Bleu’s modern American cuisine offers extraordinary variety, Valentine says.

“We make sure that we have something for everyone, so when you have a large group of friends coming in to dine, there is something that everyone will love.”