On the surface, it's a great concept: Get the suburbanites excited about a cuisine they might not know (Persian) by hedging the menu with offerings from a style they're already familiar with (Italian). House the whole thing in a warm, charming environment featuring butterscotch walls, velvet-over-lace curtains and both Eastern and Western music playing softly in the background, and you've got what sounds like a winner.
Unfortunately, on our visits to this restaurant, the execution was somewhere between forgivably inconsistent and outright flawed, which was a shame, because the Persian items we tried were unusual and enticing, a unique alternative for the west-of-270-on-Manchester neck of the woods.
We're talking about Alea's Place, located in a lofty, faux-lodge two-story space right in the heart of West County bedroom-land that's been home to a few other restaurants over the last several years. The accessible location is a twin-edged sword: On the one hand, thousands of cars drive right in front of the restaurant daily, turning the simple sign outside into a highly visible billboard; on the other hand, the traffic on Manchester is virtually perpetual and the restaurant is barely a few yards from the street, resulting in audible but not overwhelming vehicle noise at the tables by the front window. More to the point, a couple of al fresco tables are set out front, but I simply can't imagine holding a conversation at one of them.
First, the good stuff. The Persian part of the menu is represented in appetizer, salad, entree and most intriguingly pizza selections, and the roasting and spicing used to prepare these dishes provide them with full but not overwhelming flavors with rich, lingering aftertastes. Of the kebab offerings, we tried both the lamb and the soltani, the latter a combination of beef-tenderloin chunks and elongated football-shaped pieces of seasoned ground beef. Both the lamb and the beef were served over fluffy rice, the top layer of which slightly firmer and tinged in a bright color, with a half of a roasted tomato on the side. Although simple dishes in presentation, they represented fairly involved preparations, with the savory taste of garlic, onions and spices perfectly integrated into the meats.
The so-called Persian pizza, also known as tanouri, was also quite memorable, using eggplant instead of tomato for its sauce, which resulted in an umber tinge and not quite as acidic a flavor as a traditional pizza. Even the Persian appetizer we tried, called olovieh salad, was a hit: a mash of potato, egg, peas, pickles and chicken that reminded us not so much of potato salad as of a giant deviled egg.
The Italian items, however, on the whole fell short. Fried zucchini was a basic bar food with a standard marinara sauce. In trying to evaluate the pasta, however, we hit one of the service-and-management brick walls that should never occur in any restaurant. We ordered the fettuccine pesce, which arrived nicely cooked in a tomato-and-mushroom sauce but was utterly devoid of any pesce. I even double-checked our bill to ensure that the waitress had written down the right item, and she had.
Even more disconcerting was the apparent breakdown in basic restaurant management that occurred on each of our visits. The concept of successive courses was lost, with appetizers and entrees arriving at random and not simultaneous intervals in one case and the appetizer-salad-entree succession rearranged into salad-appetizer-entree on a different visit, with absolutely no consideration demonstrated as to whether the prior course had been finished when the subsequent course was delivered. One final glaring flaw was the level of noise from the kitchen, where we overheard everything from food orders to general gossip between the waitstaff and the kitchen crew.
Oh well. At least each meal ended on a sweet note. On one visit we tried the Persian treatment of the St. Louis favorite of funnel cakes, a long, twisty, light pastry liberally slathered with honey; much more interesting, but probably not to everyone's taste, was the faloodeh, a large serving of rosewater ice topped with thin, starchy, bright-white rice noodles and fresh lemon slices certainly not a combination of flavors and textures commonly associated with desserts but a refreshing and rewarding adventure nonetheless.
The probable outcome of the execution difficulties and the mundane Italian stuff, if not remedied, is that the availability of very good Persian items will get overlooked and diners unwilling to experiment will end up opting for the superior Italian cooking at Giovanni's Little Place, a little way out Manchester in one direction, or the homogeneity of the Olive Garden, a little way in the other direction. And that would really be too bad, because Alea's Place could fill an important gap in the availability of moderately priced Middle Eastern-style cuisine in West County. The restaurant's staff needs to pay a lot closer attention to the basics to achieve that role.
ALEA'S PLACE, 14424 Manchester Rd., 386-4726. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Entrees: $7.95-$14.95.
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