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At Smithville hospital, locals join physicians and patients for lunch at Bistro 71

Michael Corcoran
The Bayou Waffles pair beef tenderloin with asparagus and shrimp atop a cornbread waffle.

The official name is the Dietary Department of the Smithville Regional Hospital not exactly mouthwatering. But chef John Chabot calls his hospital dining room Bistro 71 to reflect a menu that includes the Cajun Surf N' Turf, which consists of beef tenderloin, asparagus and shrimp on a cornbread waffle topped with crawfish tasso ham gravy.

Hospital food has a reputation of being just slightly better than what's served at a state penitentiary, but if not for a 24-seat dining room full of doctors in white coats and nurses in scrubs, Bistro 71 would come off like a cozy, charming eatery that serves such creative dishes as the fried green tomato BLT on grilled ciabatta bread with chipotle mayo, beef tenderloin tips served over green onion brown rice and the Texas 2 Step, Chabot's spicy rendition of the french dip, with a tangy dijon barbecue sauce for dipping.

Then-caterer Chabot was lured to transform the kitchen at the hospital, on Texas 71 about 45 miles east of Austin, by hospital CEO Dennis Jack in 2002. "I told him I didn't know anything about hospital food," recalls Chabot. "And Dennis said 'I don't want hospital food.'"

Chabot remembers his first day on the job with a bit of a shudder. He opened the big refrigerator to find chicken patties with smiley faces, unidentifiable bowls of mush and a slight variation on McDonald's McRib sandwich.

"I threw everything away and started over," says Chabot, who had some familiarity with bland medical center food when his first wife underwent an eight-year battle with cancer.

When he was hired by Smithville Regional, he knew he had the chance to make life just a little better for those waging a good fight against pain and suffering.

"The idea is to have a restaurant that makes you forget you're in a hospital," says Chabot, who phased out the cafeteria line and switched to a made-to-order menu earlier this year. The walls are brightly colored and decorated with artwork you might find in an Italian bistro.

He and his five employees also serve up to 15 patients in their hospital beds seven days a week, though Bistro 71 is open only from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

Prices at Bistro 71 are in the $5.95 (basic burger) to $9.95 (Cajun Surf N' Turf) range — pricey for institutional food — but much less than you'd pay for comparable-quality cuisine at Austin dining establishments. Doctors eat for free, and other staffers get a 20 percent discount.

A key element of the Bistro 71 business model is that the community dines there even if they don't have business at the hospital. Though driving to a hospital for lunch sounds a bit like visiting Lubbock for the scenery, Chabot estimates that about 20 percent of his customers are townfolk. He blasts more than 100 e-mails each day to area residents, who might find it hard to pass up such daily specials as chicken artichoke lasagna served with basil pesto marinara and sun-dried tomato cream. The Texicali chicken fried steak sandwich on grilled jalapeño bread drives more folks to the hospital than free flu shots.

Emergency room doctor Rick Passman began working at Smithville Regional the year before Chabot transformed the kitchen. "It was drab, boring food, just what you'd expect from a hospital," Passman says of his first year. "What a difference it makes when you know you're going to have a great lunch."

Current hospital CEO Grady Hooper says Bistro 71, which is expected to be unchanged after Seton takes over hospital operations in February, "is a good marketing tool for us. It's definitely a selling point for (attracting) employees."

The word's gotten out about Bistro 71, which rivals Ron Remlinger's wonderful Back Door Cafe, as the best eatery in town. When director Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life," starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, chose Smithville as a filming location in 2007, the film's advance team ate lunch at the hospital daily until filming began and a catering crew was hired.

Two weeks ago, Chabot started offering lunch, via online ordering and a one-time-daily delivery, to the 300 employees of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center research campus in Smithville. "We're always looking for ways to bring in more revenue," he says.

A native of North Carolina, Chabot, 48, began his cooking career right out of college in 1984, apprenticing for French chef Serge Claire at Marianne's in Charleston, S.C. When his wife Natalie was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1991, the couple moved to her native Texas to be closer to relatives and top-rated treatment facilities. Settling in Bastrop, Chabot opened his first restaurant, Chabot's Mostly Italian Cafe in the late '90s. When Natalie died in 1999, leaving Chabot with twin third-graders to raise, he closed his restaurant and started a more manageable catering business.

It was catering a staff holiday dinner that Chabot made first contact with Smithville Regional.

Former CEO Jack was a few years ahead of a national movement to serve more nutritious and tastier food in hospitals when he tapped Chabot. It makes sense to have healthier food in a place where the ill effects of obesity are prominent, but most large medical centers, which serve hundreds of meals a day, have customarily ordered food in bulk from large distributors. It's also usually prepared in bulk, whereas at Bistro 71, which serves 80 to 100 meals a day, there's more of a personal touch.

Because of Smithville Regional regulations, Chabot can order food only from approved distributors, including the giant Sysco Corp.. He also has to have at least 10 days worth of food on hand at all times in case there's a need for disaster relief, which means some meats and vegetables are frozen.

"Because of some of the restrictions, we have to work a little harder to make food that's fresh and interesting," Chabot says as he prepares Cornish game hens for lunch. "Taste is still our top priority, but we also serve salads for the health-conscious."

The chicken patties stopped smiling long ago.

Bistro 71 Chicken Fajita Philly

Ingredients

6-oz. chicken breast

1 tsp. fajita seasoning

½ Tbsp. olive oil

1 garlic clove, minced

2 oz. green bell pepper, strips

2 oz. yellow onion, strips

1 small jalapeño, thinly sliced

4 medium mushrooms, sliced

2 strips cooked Applewood smoked bacon

1 oz. chopped cilantro

2 slices Swiss cheese

French hoagie roll

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Meanwhile, sprinkle chicken breast with fajita seasoning and grill chicken breast. Then slice into strips. Heat olive oil in a nonstick pan. Add garlic, bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, jalapeño and sauté until tender, remove from heat. Add sliced chicken. Fill hoagie with chicken-vegetable blend. Top with chopped cilantro, bacon and Swiss cheese. Bake in oven until cheese is melted.

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Chabot has given Smithville Regional great food for eight years, but the hospital has given him more than a wage in return. In 2003, Chabot and wife Martha brought home a 3-week-old boy, born at the hospital to a woman who didn't have the means or stability to raise him. A doctor in the food line had mentioned the newborn and after Chabot discussed it with Martha, the couple got a lawyer who drew up adoption papers.

Today, seven-year-old Brice is the starting quarterback for the Lost Pines Warriors.

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More good food in unlikely places

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ALLEY GRUB Dart Bowl (5700 Grover Ave., Austin, 459-4181) With the music of flying pins in the background, this Austin bowling alley cafe is best known for its truck-stop enchiladas, with onions and a fried egg on top. But it also features great griddle-cooked cheeseburgers. And you can wear your own shoes.

GAS STATION CUISINE Taqueria Huentitan (2101 Beebee Road, Kyle, 512-295-4620) Located inside a Shell Station, this joint features great breakfast tacos, as well as tasty barbacoa and carne guisada for lunch. Gas up, and then fill up your car!