Whoa. Sorry about that. You might want to open a window till the fumes clear.
OK. Confession time. I didn't write the opening paragraph. I set my Review Generator 3000 to the "bistro" setting, typed in the restaurant's name and address and then went out to my back porch with a cold beer and the last few issues of Condé Nast Traveler. Sadly, though, my Review Generator 3000 is near the end of its life. (I bought it secondhand from a guy in a beat-up Buick; I've always suspected it might actually be a rewired Sports Column Fabricator.) It tends to sputter and smoke whenever it encounters even the smallest deviation from the norm.
Case in point: Bistro Alexander doesn't serve crab cakes. It serves crab bites. These are pleasant enough. The crab filling inside the crisp breading is creamy and mildly sweet though the tartar sauce dabbed atop them is bland and utterly unimaginative.
I tried the crab bites as part of a sampler platter, which provides smaller portions of three appetizers for $18. Also on the platter were crispy beef spring rolls served with a peanut dipping sauce and a crisp but uninteresting "Asian" slaw. I assumed "crispy" referred to the spring rolls as a whole, but it was the beef within that had been charred crisp. It was served in such thin pieces that the flavor of the meat couldn't overcome that of the char.
The third appetizer was that bistro workhorse, tuna tartare, here served as a cylinder of cubed tuna standing on a fan of cucumber slices, a dollop of wasabi atop the tuna, with pickled ginger on the side. There was nothing wrong with this besides its construction with the first stab of the fork, the tower of tuna collapsed but there was nothing very memorable about it, either.
(Seriously, folks: Let's retire tuna tartare.)
Chef Matt Rolens does try to broaden the standard St. Louis bistro repertoire. You still won't find veal sweetbreads or offal of any sort at most area bistros. As an appetizer, Rolens serves a fricassee of sweetbreads, chanterelle mushrooms and peas over polenta. Yet this dish could stand in for most of the problems I found at Bistro Alexander.
For one, the presentation was sloppy. A beautiful dish isn't necessarily a great dish, but even a great dish will lose some charm if it looks like the cafeteria lunch lady slopped it on your plate. Here, the sweetbreads, the dish's ostensible focus, were randomly scattered across the plate. It looked more like a bowl of polenta the chef had garnished willy-nilly. Second, the polenta was too salty, especially problematic because there was so much of it. Finally most crucially while the pairing of sweetbreads, polenta and mushrooms has rustic appeal, this dish relied too heavily on the sweetbreads' relatively mild flavor. The other ingredients were too diffuse to concentrate or contrast it.
Conceptual flaws were even more apparent with the seared tuna steak. A thumbnail sketch of this entrée would be "too salty." Yet here the problem wasn't simply a cook tossing an extra handful of salt into the pot. Rather the tuna was served with white anchovies, tapenade and Bulgarian feta. It might as well have been mounted atop a salt lick.
The New York strip steak with French fries brought another conceptual breakdown. There was nothing wrong with the steak itself, but it was buried beneath a tangle of tobacco-flavored onion straws. A few of the crisp onions might have offered textural contrast and a hint of sweetness. This was overkill.
Worse, however, was how the steak rested atop the French fries, turning many of them soggy even before I made my first cut. It was such an obvious flaw in design that I still can't quite accept it was intentional. But what other explanation could there be?
Lamb chops in a rosemary jus with a cassoulet of white beans is an elegant dish. You'll find something similar in Thomas Keller's The French Laundry cookbook. Yet here the chops (one with a single bone, the other a double) were overwhelmed by once again too much salt in the jus. The rosemary flavor barely flickered at the edges. A shame, as the chops themselves were a very good cut. The dish suffered from sloppiness, too. The jus spilled over into the cassoulet, swamping whatever individual qualities it might have had.
Chicken served over garlic spinach and a bacon and leek risotto was bedeviled by an overpowering and, yes, salty natural jus, while bourbon molasses-glazed pork loin medallions were well-done and, thus, dry. (Our server didn't ask how we wanted the pork cooked.) Only the rib eye steak, ordered medium-rare and topped with sautéed onions and a scattering of Roquefort cheese, delivered hearty flavor without fault.
You might expect the dessert menu to feature the usual bistro clichés: crème brûlée and flourless chocolate cake. In fact, the desserts are fabulous, from a simple serving of rich, but not too dense, chocolate cake with ice cream and candied oranges to a luscious orange crème caramel with "blistered" blueberries.
Best of all is the Meyer lemon soufflé, served chilled with blueberry-ginger sauce. The mild sweetness of Meyer lemons pairs beautifully with the brightly flavored sauce, and the chilled soufflé's texture not quite a custard, not quite a semifreddo is ideal for a warm summer evening.
I ordered the soufflé at the end of my first visit to Bistro Alexander. Before it arrived, owner Mario Nikolov brought us a small dish of mojito sorbet. "The chef's gone crazy," he said. "Try it."
The sorbet was very nice. Matt Rolens is a chef with talent, and Nikolov (who named the restaurant after his young son) is clearly a dedicated owner, walking the floor, checking up on tables, both nights I visited. Still, I wish they would let themselves go crazy more often. Right now, almost everything about Bistro Alexander from the standard-issue bistro menu to the blandly elegant space is ordinary, which makes its flaws that much mr apprrjeag.
Ahem. Which makes its flaws that much more apparent.
Sorry. The Review Generator 3000 crapped out again. Frankly, it can't take much more of this. I should upgrade to Apple's new iReview. It comes with a phone, an MP3 player and a complete Wine Advocate archive. The works. It's more than I can afford, but some days it's so, so tempting.
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