Study in Scarlet

Decadence colors the Washington Avenue loft district Red.

A thumbnail sketch of Red sounds like a Saturday Night Live skit circa 1992. The three-month-old loft district restaurant-slash-lounge is a surreal riff on Soviet Bloc-era Eastern Europe as filtered through a college backpacker's boozy night in the seamy squatter districts of post-reunification Berlin. No, servers don't wear castoff Red Army uniforms and babushkas, but the banquettes are a brutal — or is that Brutalist? — take on Communist discomfort, very low to the ground and weirdly kinked. The booths are padded concrete, each one equipped with its own flat-screen monitor broadcasting a live feed of the kitchen. What would the Stasi have made of executive chef René Cruz's activities? I have no idea, but I can report that the man has fantastic knife skills.

Part of me expected Dieter from Sprockets to show up and dance. Red's music is always loud and, if a DJ is spinning, downright deafening. The space as a whole aspires to a trendy opulence, with leather armchairs in the flat-screen-bejeweled bar and strange black fixtures resembling department-store security cameras dangling from the ceiling.

Cruz's menu presents (I'm quoting verbatim here) "eclectic American cuisine with an Eastern European flair." Forget for a second that this is probably the first time you've ever seen "Eastern European" and "flair" in the same sentence. Forget, too, any fond, paprika-spiced memories you might have of your grandmother's goulash. The concept isn't as odd as it might sound. In truth, the menu, which for dinner features four soups, five salads, four flatbread pizzas, seven "small plates" and seven "large plates," is much too varied to generalize.

Bartender Melissa Bullard adds some sparkle to Red's Eastern European cuisine.
Jennifer Silverberg
Bartender Melissa Bullard adds some sparkle to Red's Eastern European cuisine.

Details

Red

Short ribs...$12
Red snapper...$14
Lamb shank...$23
Goat-cheese cake...$8

1130 Washington Avenue; 314-588-7864. Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu. 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Light menu available 5 p.m.-midnight Sun. (Bar open nightly till 1 a.m.)

There are two ways to order, though your server might not explain them. (One did during my visits, another didn't.) The first is the basic appetizer-soup/salad-entrée approach. The second is what Cruz calls "American Grazing." This may sound like what cows do, but when you think about it, it's probably a more accurate description of the tapas/small-plates phenomenon than anything else I've heard. At any rate, the method involves the table ordering a bunch of dishes to share. That's fine in theory, but chaotic in practice: The kitchen serves each dish whenever it's ready, leading to (in our case) two dishes and then three more arriving in very short order, crowding the tabletop and requiring some "Who wants the last bite of the red snapper?" negotiating to clear room.

But before our grazing meal, we sampled several of Red's soups and salads. Tomato soup with "bacon essence" was tomato soup whose bacon essence came in the form of just a slight hint of smoke. It made me crave a grilled-cheese sandwich, so I suppose it was a success. Greens with a strawberry vinaigrette and blue cheese crumbles provided a pleasant mix of sweet and sharp, but the dill-caper vinaigrette on a salad of greens and grilled calamari gave the tender slices of squid an odd, almost fishy flavor that I could have done without.

Then there was the curried carrot soup with "mint cloud" and curry oil. The buzz around Red's opening focused on the kitchen's use of molecular gastronomy, the practice of using scientific principles to transform ordinary food into new and unusual forms. There are numerous examples, but for those of us who haven't been fortunate enough to score a table at restaurants at Spain's El Bulli, Chicago's Alinea or other establishments at the vanguard of this movement, the most familiar might be foams.

Early reports from Red noted dishes more ambitious than foams. "Caviar" made from mustard, for example. (One of molecular gastronomy's go-to tricks is serving liquids as solids.) By the time I visited, however, the mint "cloud" on the curried carrot soup was the only overt example of molecular gastronomy on the menu. In an interview with Sauce magazine, René Cruz explained that this "cloud" is emulsified with xanthan gum (you know it as the ingredient that makes commercial ice cream so thick and, sometimes, gummy) and then served through a nitrous oxide-charged whipped-cream dispenser.

Interesting, yes, but how does it look and taste? In Red's low light, the "cloud" looked more or less exactly like a dollop of crème fraîche atop the soup. The flavor and texture were essentially like mint-flavored whipped cream, but the flavor was quickly subsumed by the aggressively spicy soup — so spicy that I couldn't detect any carrot at all. It could have been anything in there.

Among the small plates, my favorite was short ribs with caraway-studded mashed potatoes and cabbage and kalamata olives braised in red wine. The combination isn't striking, but the presentation certainly is, a radically simple arrangement with equal amounts of all three components along an oblong plate. You can smush them together for a hearty Eastern European meal, or as the plating suggests, you can try each in turn, teasing out the subtleties of flavor that make up a cuisine we hardly ever consider subtle.

Pan-seared red snapper over braised lentils in a citrus bordelaise was a fine seafood dish, though the smoked mussels that accompanied the fish were a chalky intrusion. Potato croquettes were a more traditional appetizer: bland by themselves, but tasty when dipped in a roasted-garlic crème fraîche.

Only one small plate failed: a generous serving of seared duck breast over a "hash" of chopped apple, turnip and Brussels sprouts in a pickled apricot purée. The duck breast by itself was superb, the skin crisp and the meat tender and flavorful. The hash, though, was bitter; not even the apples could balance things out, their sweetness undermined by the too-tart apricot purée.

Of the large plates I tried, the braised lamb shank stood out. Rich with the flavor of its own juices and a meaty ragout of wild mushrooms, it quivered at the mere mention of a fork. Spring peas in the shell gave the dish a nice snap. Lobster tail in a tomato-Armagnac sauce served with wedges of a spinach-goat cheese strudel made for an odd combination. The lobster meat wasn't particularly succulent, and the sauce didn't register at all. On the other hand, the strudel was delicious, the filling moist and flavorful, the pastry shell light and crisp. What the lobster and strudel were doing on the same plate, I couldn't tell you, and I have to wonder if the Cruz and his staff are hamstrung by Red's "concept."

They certainly seem to have more fun with desserts, which as far as I can tell make no claim to being Eastern European. Best of the bunch is the black pepper goat-cheese cake. Sounds odd, I know, but the tart funk of goat cheese and the kick from a dusting of black pepper is beautifully balanced by bits of granola in both butterscotch and caramel sauce. Chocolate beignets with burnt-honey ice cream and caramel sauce are also fantastic.

The wine list wisely eschews the Eastern Bloc, though its array of Californian, French and Australian wines harbors few surprises. For some decidedly un-Communist decadent indulgence — which, after all, is what brought you to Red — order yourself a $450 bottle of Cristal.

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