Déjà Vu All Over Again: There's something a little too familiar about Mike Johnson's latest creation, Bici

Bici Cafe

7401 Pershing Avenue, University City; 314-721-8484.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Wed., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Thu.-Sat. (Bar open till 1 a.m. Mon.-Sat., till midnight Sun.)

Bici Café
Falafel "popcorn"...$6
Crab cakes...$8
Prosciutto and sausage pizza...$10
Skirt steak...$14

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.

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.

Pleasant, but not distinctive, also describes the pasta dish I sampled: grilled chicken served over orzo with mushrooms and broccoli in a tart lemon-yogurt sauce. I suppose the sauce does give this a Mediterranean bent, but the dish struck me as spa food more than anything else.

The entrée selection is presented as an afterthought in the menu's bottom corner. I had the "herb-marinated Greek skirt steak," served over mashed potatoes (you can have fries instead) in a pool of an orange, vaguely buttery sauce. Skirt steak is a tougher cut, but my steak was on the tender side of chewy — though I wish I'd had the option of choosing its temperature. It arrived already sliced, medium to medium-well. Nothing about the flavor struck me as Greek, though. Again, I had the sense that the menu's Mediterranean slant is a concept, not a culinary dedication.

It would help if Mike Johnson really could clone himself. Bici Café, its lovely location notwithstanding, is unfocused. The more I think about it, the more I think Multiplicity provides an apt metaphor after all. In the movie Michael Keaton is a harried businessman, husband and father who has himself cloned. The first clone is too macho, so he has a second clone made. Later the macho clone has himself cloned. The resulting clone is a bumbling idiot. Maybe there's a lesson here: Like dittos from an old-fashioned mimeograph, the quality can fade with repeated iterations.

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