Tangerine Dream

With all the hype that has surrounded the Washington Avenue Loft District lately, you might think that anyplace that's lasted more than six months must be making oodles of money and enjoying a steady, loyal clientele. Looking a bit closer, however, the Loft District has been much more of a late-night-club phenomenon than a fledgling restaurant zone, and those who have set up coffeehouses with food, or full-fledged restaurants, have had to battle even worse odds than the already daunting ones facing someone trying to establish a new restaurant.

Perhaps the perfect embodiment of what's been happening on Washington is Tangerine, which we first visited almost two years ago but to which we were drawn back recently because of its promotion of a new menu featuring "upscale American vegetarian cuisine." As it turned out, like some of the general perceptions vs. realities of the neighborhood, this promotion was only partially accurate, but once it got us through the door, the resulting experience was wonderful.

The architecture of the building housing Tangerine is both a selling point and an impediment for the restaurant. It's a long, tall but very narrow space, and, as a result, traditional table seating for eating is limited to well less than 50, with the side wall devoted to a long shelf with single seats more suitable for lounging and nursing a drink. In fact, on the night we visited, the entire nonsmoking section was eaten up by a party of about 15, and even when we opted for the smoking section, it had been arranged to hold only 14 more people at five closely spaced tables.

The rear of the room houses both the kitchen and a kitschily decorated tiki bar, with a Lava Lamp projection on one wall and, at least at the relatively early hour on the evening we visited, a topless woman chasing a monkey in a scene from a low-budget kung fu movie on another wall. Add to this the fact that we were sitting on molded plastic chairs, mainly in primary colors, in the shape of an open hand, and you start to envision the general surrealism of the atmosphere.

This '60s "oh, wow" environment was in sharp contrast to the food and service, which were definitely competent, professional and often very innovative. I'd quibble with the description - "upscale American vegetarian" brings to mind more the $75-a-head, six-to eight-course all-vegetable feasts served most recognizably by Charlie Trotter in Chicago. Even for St. Louis, the all-under-$10 entree prices are anything but upscale, and the presentation, though attractive, doesn't match the description, either. And although fruits and vegetables were the dominant ingredients in most of the nine entrees on the menu the evening we visited, the inclusion of seafood in two of them and in one of the appetizers made the "vegetarian" label less than accurate.

Nonetheless, the food itself had no idea what labels had been put on it, and we had an excellent, very affordable meal, started off in style with a complimentary relish tray of spicy tart marinated onions, kalamata olives and a delicate white-bean spread infused with truffle oil.

We continued with appetizers of chickpea fritters ($3.50) and herbed wild-mushroom páte ($4.25). The latter dish's translation of "paste" was quite apt, given that it was a spread rather than a slice, with finely chopped dark mushrooms loosely held together by an herbed cream with the consistency of fresh mayonnaise. A whole sage leaf used as decoration gave some hint of the primary flavoring. The fritters were an excellent rendition of Indian samosas, served with shredded carrots and a curry sauce that held the distinct bite of chile peppers.

The tendency toward spiciness continued with an entree of pan-fried noodles in green curry ($7.50), a very large serving of long, thick noodles in an oriental bowl loaded with carrots, red and yellow bell peppers, scallions and bean sprouts, with a distinct coconut undertone balancing the fire of the curry. Our other entree was an unusual but wildly satisfying sandwich of grilled pear, Gorgonzola cheese and walnuts on thick sourdough bread ($6.75), served with a radicchio salad. Until I bit into it, the pear looked and felt more like a turnip or radish, but on contact it burst forth with a richly concentrated but delicate sweetness that held up perfectly against the creamy bite of the cheese and the roasted-nut flavor of the walnuts. (Because the menu is rotated every week or so, these items may or may not be available if you choose to visit Tangerine.)

Given the primary draw of the neighborhood, Tangerine also doubles as a late-night hangout, with mixed effects on its restaurant role. Dinner isn't served until 6 p.m., which probably dissuades some adventurous downtown workers from making it an on-the-way-home spot and also actually caused us to look elsewhere a couple of weekends ago, when we arrived at about 5:40 to find no signs of life and no hours posted on the door. But the retro martinis, umbrella drinks and margaritas are great fun -- especially the margaritas, which are named for Latin American revolutionaries and dictators (Castro, Che Guevara, Batista, Noriega, Zapata). The peach-and-lime flavoring of the last choice, which was served in a sizable shaker cup and poured into a stemmed glass, was certainly worthy of a "AViva Zapata!"

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