Different Strokes

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You have to hand it to the Marriott West for making the effort to reach beyond the captive hotel-guest trade and establish its restaurant as a destination for locals as well as the transient crowd. A recent renovation combined the appointment of a popular local chef -- Roger Jamison, whose pedigree goes all the way back to Stan Musial & Biggie's and includes former hotspots Painted Plates and Cottonwood -- with a theme that celebrates what is said to be the revival of rowing as a sport in St. Louis.

Nice ideas, these. And though it's good to have Jamison back behind the stove, with a menu ranging from competent to close to outstanding, we found that the Regatta Bar & Grille's generally $15-plus entree pricing placed it on the lower end of the value scale when the meal experience was taken as a whole. In short, it's OK, but you could probably do better on that kind of budget.

The Marriott West is tucked into a midrise office park just to the south of the Maryville exit on Highway 40, with a rising structure in front of it now all but rendering it invisible from the highway. The Regatta should have a natural lunch constituency from the dozens of office buildings in close proximity to the hotel, but as far as dinner goes it's a little isolated -- although the Marriott folks are trying to exploit this by promoting the "lake and wildlife" view from the restaurant. (And I must admit, the mommy and baby goosies were awful cute.)

Inside, most of the dining room is a two-story atrium, with crewing accoutrements displayed throughout, two full sculling shells hanging upside down from the ceiling and even custom nautical-themed napkin rings. The menu for both appetizers and entrees is mostly but not overwhelmingly seafood.

One of Jamison's signature dishes for this restaurant is the Back Bay Chowder ($3.50/$3.95), and it goes far beyond the standard clams-only white Boston chowder to include large portions of crab and bay shrimp, as well as corn for an added touch of sweetness. The creamy liquid base is perfectly smooth and rich without being cloying, making it an ideal choice to stand alone as a lunch or a light dinner.

We also sampled the portobello-and-goat-cheese ($6.95) and applewood-smoked-salmon appetizers ($7.95), each an excellent portion for a starting course. The salmon included six large cross-section slices, fairly strong on the smokiness but very light on the saltiness, accompanied by points of brown bread and condiments of dilled sour cream, mustard butter, sweet gherkins, capers, sliced red onion and olives. The portobello dish featured bite-size slices of the mushroom layered closely with the goat cheese on a pastry base that was somewhere between a strudel and a pizza, all of which was ornamented by a scallion flayed into a blossom.

Jamison does well with fish, as illustrated by the pistachio-crusted roasted halibut ($16.95) and the pan-roasted sea bass ($17.95), both of which were firm in texture (more so with the sea bass), with flavorings that subtly complemented rather than overwhelmed the fish. The pistachio crusting -- which extended only partially over the body of the fillet -- gave the halibut a gentle toasty flavor; the bass gained a slight tang from slices of tomato and vague oriental overtones from the light ginger dressing.

A rack of lamb ($21.50) was good but not great, owing to underdoneness on one of the two double chops, which was ordered medium-rare but came closer to tartare in the middle. It was a good enough cut that the meat survived this inattention, with its full flavor actually standing up even better to a thick coating of rosemary and other herbs, along with a mustard-enhanced butter coating.

Another Jamison signature dish is a dessert called the Devil's Tower, alternating layers of raspberry-soaked chocolate pound cake and peanut-butter mousse topped off with more peanuts and a chocolate coating. The cake is dense and the mousse airy, yielding an interesting interplay, but the roasted peanuts pushed the peanut flavoring a bit over the top.

Nonetheless, our experience with the food was quite good overall. So what's not to like?

Well, to start, the entrance of the restaurant passes near a lounge/sports-bar setup, and both times we visited we had to wade through an atmosphere of stale cigarette smoke and overloud road warriors before we even reached the host station. Once we were seated, the service was extremely erratic -- attentive and prompt as could be on one visit but sluggish and thoroughly uninformed on another, with the meal on the latter visit dragging out a good half-hour longer than it should have. With prices at this level, the service should be nigh unto perfect. What's more, twice we saw entire tables of middle-aged men in golf shirts all end up ordering the $8.95 Angus burger, apparently holding strictly to the IRS recommended per diems for meals in "low-cost" cities, of which St. Louis is one.

Through its pricing, the Regatta Bar & Grille has set itself closer to the standards of hotel dining rooms such as Faust's and the Ritz-Carlton, but the ambience and atmosphere are still closer to the middle of the road, or, in this case, the middle of the stream. We hope that a touch of retooling can patch the leaks, because Jamison is a talented chef with a very approachable style.

REGATTA BAR & GRILLE, Marriott West Hotel, 660 Maryville Dr., 514-6190. Entrees: $14.95-$21.95

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