SEVERAL DEADLY SINS

A return visit to Lynch Street Bistro finds faster service but only occasionally rewarding culinary experimentation

Sloth, viruses, anger, piss, guns, snakes, skulls, screaming faces, a corporate-minded Avarice sucking up rainforests -- the jumbo calligraphic paintings encircling the Lynch Street Bistro's dining room leave no scurrilous stone unturned. The waiter informs me with a downtown smirk that these unsettling artifacts are excerpts from William S. Burroughs' Seven Deadly Sins.

Creepy stuff for a dining room. I am reminded of a punk dinner party I attended in 1979 where White Castle pâté was served on toilet seats (remove Castles from cardboard [optional]; dump into blender; press into loaf pan; chill; serve with Bunny Bread toast points). Age has not diminished my appreciation for subversive challenges to the appetite; I am impressed with Lynch Street's extravagant risk. It is not in every St. Louis restaurant that you encounter the words "Lust that wallows in carrion, naked, loveless, repulsive Need" when you walk in the door.

But I am not here as an art critic; someone from the bistro has called the RFT to complain about their blurb in the "Cafe" section. Apparently the phrase "expect pleasant but snail-paced service" is sticking in their craw, and they want it expunged. So be it. Tonight there is no sign of the drowsily stoned waiter who earned them the snail rating last year. Except for a basket of bread that is promised but never delivered, Babs and I find our duo of hipster servers brisk and adept. A few subsequent visits bear out this observation. However, I inadvertently discover that certain deadly sins are not limited to the objets d'art on Lynch Street's walls.

Don Bannes of the Lynch Street Bistro, a restaurant that relies on wanton experimentation
Jennifer Silverberg
Don Bannes of the Lynch Street Bistro, a restaurant that relies on wanton experimentation

The first of these, I regret to say, applies not just to Lynch Street but to lots of white-linen places around town. I allude to the sin of utensil sloth, and now's as good a time as any to get this off my chest.

After enjoying my first course -- a classic spinach salad with bacon and mushrooms -- I deposit knife and fork on the plate. When removing the dishes, the busboy recklessly flings my dirty knife onto the tablecloth. Why? To spare the dishwasher the agony of washing it before the second course? Not only is the thing still encrusted with spinach and bacon, it lands at a conspicuous angle that compels me, like the imp of the perverse, to stare at it until my entree arrives. The widespread practice of knife-recycling has got to go. Vulgar in any setting, it's particularly offensive in a restaurant pretentious enough to enshrine Billy Burroughs in green marble and designer fixtures. Sixteen bucks is not excessive for an edible main course, but certainly the use of a clean knife might be included in the tariff. And if they insist on being so stingy, the least they can do is tear the spinach leaves small enough so I don't need their precious knife in the first place. I mean, come on.

But I want to love Lynch Street Bistro. I want so much to love it that I return two or three times after I've maxed out my RFT expense account and am reduced to spending my own money. The trendy menu is eclectic, if a bit silly (I wonder how many of their middle-management brewery customers know or care what a tomato concassé is?) and features appealing tidbits like hoppin' john, corn cakes, roasted garlic. The room is hip and well proportioned. And, yes, service is tidy (except for the knife thing). Yet something is awry. I sense aspirations to a lofty plane, but the food, though generally palatable, falls short. Practically speaking, the kitchen's attention to serving temperatures and cooking times is at best erratic. Conceptually, I discern an insensitivity to the limitations and natural properties of seasonings and ingredients. The unhappy result: gourmandus interruptus. To wit:

At lunch I give the salmon a whirl. It has an ancho-chile rub for that crisp-skinned barbecue effect and arrives amid artsy squiggles of syrupy Chinese mustard. Unlike a similar dish that I've loved at Balaban's for years, it is burnt on one end, rare in the center and flaky everywhere else. Its taste is something less than fresh. Furthermore, a side of curry rice fights the fish's in-yer-face seasonings in a sort of clash of the Titans. The two do not belong on the same plate.

Then there's the butternut-squash bisque. It is promising: rich and slightly savory, with a sweet finish and a velvety feel on the tongue. So why isn't it hot enough? I am less than half finished before it's gotten too cold to pursue further.

A garish Cobb salad is even more disappointing. I'm no purist, but there are certain dishes in the culinary canon you shouldn't mess with, and Cobb salad is one of 'em. Here the famous Brown Derby recipe (calling traditionally for blue cheese, turkey, bacon and avocado) morphs into a tawdry conglomeration of chicken chunks, andouille sausage, cilantro dressing and Lynch Street's ubiquitous black-bean relish. The translation is awkward and heavy-handed. Grilled chicken is a reasonable substitute for turkey, but the spicy Cajun sausage is so dense and loud that I yearn for the subtle crunch of the bacon it replaces. The dressing is gummy, and a mushy, canned-tasting bean relish is an unnecessary distraction. A salad should place no excessive demands on the sensibilities or the digestion; that's why you order it.

It gets worse before it gets better. At dinner I sample Lynch Street's gratuitously elaborate take on chicken cordon bleu. A free-range chicken breast is stuffed with mozzarella, mushrooms, spinach and prosciutto. Dusted with what I'd swear is Parmesan cheese from a green can, it is thoroughly burned on the bottom. Not only does the syrupy wine reduction affect the look and feel of old motor oil, it has an unattractive skin on top and tastes exclusively of burnt sugar. Dominating the plate is a softball-size glop of tepid and gluey mashed potatoes. On the side: a few tired asparagus spears reminiscent of the canned variety I spat out as a child. The overall presentation reveals the work of a reasonably gifted plater who is perhaps too eager to dispense of excess potatoes at the end of the shift. On the upside, I soon discover that if I scrape the meat off the burnt underside, the chicken is quite edible.

As is often the case with restaurants that rely on wanton experimentation as a shtick, dishes that escape the indignity of revisionist tampering work best. Babs' sexy strip steak, draped like an odalisque over a delicious twice-baked potato, capitalizes, with tasty results, on simplicity. In the same vein, two classic sandwiches are peerless examples of their kind. One, a Reuben on swirly rye, is perhaps the best I've ever tasted. The other, an enormous prime-rib Philly with caramelized onion, defines gooey perfection. Both come with impeccable fries. Although I can't recommend the kitchen's more hyperbolic flights of fancy (at least until they quit burning things), these two lunches, along with baskets of feather-light, fresh-from-the-oven biscuits, are why Lynch Street will continue to facilitate my commission of the deadliest of midday sins: gluttony.

LYNCH STREET BISTRO, 1031 Lynch St., 772-5777. Hours: lunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu. and 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; closed Sun. Entrees: $15-$20.

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