By Tara Mahadevan
By Ian Froeb
By Ian Froeb
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Gut Check
By Ian Froeb
By Ian Froeb
By Gut Check Guides
Now that the Large Hadron Collider is out of commission for a few months, the world's leading scientists can stop fretting about the origins of the universe and attend to the truly pressing question of our day: How, exactly, is Mike Johnson able to involve himself in so many restaurants? In July Steve Werner opened Bici Café, for which Johnson devised the menu and serves as executive chef. This came a few months after Johnson debuted a new pan-Asian joint, Fumanchu — which itself is located on the same block as two other Johnson creations, Boogaloo and El Scorcho. Add to that other restaurants with which he has been involved (BARcelona, Momo's, Roxane, Cyrano's), and you have one impressive résumé.
7401 Pershing Ave.
University City, MO 63130
Region: Delmar/ The Loop
OK, you don't need a particle physicist to explain Johnson's efforts. Ambition, efficiency, effective time management, a fertile imagination. It's the entrepreneurial spirit, as American as mooseburgers or apple pie.
That said, this recovering sci-fi geek would like to propose an alternative: cloning. Now, I don't believe that there are multiple, identical Mike Johnsons running around St. Louis, à la Michael Keaton in the (unjustly) forgotten flick Multiplicity. At least, I haven't seen multiple, identical Mike Johnsons running around St. Louis.
Instead, many of Johnson's restaurants replicate a certain pattern: Pick a cuisine and then offer it in small-plate form. (It is helpful, though not necessary, that the cuisine lend itself toward small plates already, as with Spanish tapas and Greek mezes.) Combine this with a stylish drink list and a hip atmosphere. The result is usually a hit — and, crucially, a long-lived hit. Walk by BARcelona on a pleasant Friday evening and see for yourself.
Bici Café follows half of this formula. The cuisine is Mediterranean. To its credit, the menu draws inspiration not only from Europe's Mediterranean traditions but also from North Africa's and the Middle East's. There are many small plates, few entrées.
By design, though, Bici Café isn't hip. This is a neighborhood restaurant, situated at the attractive intersection of Jackson and Pershing avenues, near University City's southern border with Clayton. The interior is casual and colorful, with toy bicycles dominating the décor. (The space was once a bicycle shop; most recently it was Sofia Bistro.) During my visits, the ideal weather made the large patio in front of the restaurant the place to be.
There are seven cold and ten hot small plates. Here the Mediterranean influence is broad but not particularly deep. Consider the crab cakes. The menu describes these as seasoned with za'atar and served with a harissa aioli. Za'atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend tartly spiked with ground sumac and a pronounced note of thyme; harissa is a devilishly hot North Africa chile sauce. The effect of the two combined should be pungent and bracing, but these crab cakes were tame, the spices a whisper. The crab cakes themselves were fine, with an acceptable ratio of meat to filler.
The best of the small plates tapped into the universal love of bite-size snacks rather than the particular charms of a specific cuisine. An order of falafel "popcorn" brings a handful of the crisp chickpea treats, each maybe a third of the size of traditional falafel. I enjoyed these, though the accompanying tzatziki sauce lacked character. Dates stuffed with chorizo, wrapped in bacon and dressed with a piquillo-pepper coulis will quickly vanish from your plate.
A trend that, so far as I know, isn't Mediterranean in the slightest but fits perfectly with the small-plate ethos is the slider. Bici Café offers veal meatball sliders, with tender and flavorful meatballs in tomato sauce on a soft bun. Nothing groundbreaking here, but the sliders did convey a sense of fun (a departure from the rest of the menu).
An order of baba ghannouj was strikingly bland; the eggplant purée, cut with tahini, could have used a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and an extra dash of salt. Spanikopita seems present only to fulfill a quota. There was nothing wrong with the dish — spinach and feta layered between delicate phyllo — but it was gone in a few bites and then forgotten.
Aside from the small plates, the menu offers soups, salads and sandwiches. I ordered the croque monsieur, that French glory of a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich dipped in egg batter. After a 45-minute wait —were they importing my sandwich directly from Paris? — I received a lukewarm, egg-slimed disaster. The cheese either hadn't melted or had melted and was now congealing back into slice form. A word here about the service at Bici Café: It lags. There always seemed to be enough servers on the floor, but over four visits I waited longer than you would expect for food, drinks and, in one case, a menu. (I eventually fetched it myself.)
That menu features ten pizzas. You can also build your own. These are flatbread pizzas, each big enough for one hungry diner. I sampled a pizza topped with prosciutto, Italian sausage, roasted red peppers and smoked mozzarella. The cheese didn't have the strong flavor that I associate with smoked mozzarella, but on the whole the pizza was fine, the crust pleasant without being distinctive.
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