Old Standby

Lynch Street Bistro takes a pause that refreshes

Feb 19, 2003 at 4:00 am
On January 23, about an hour before the lunch shift was to begin, Ken Elder, a 40-year-old refrigeration contractor, was killed instantly in the kitchen of the Lynch Street Bistro when a Freon tank he was working on accidentally exploded. Neither the kitchen nor the dining areas suffered any structural damage, but out of respect, the management opted to close the restaurant for about two weeks afterward. (Elder had been handling Lynch Street's refrigeration works for some time, according to manager Aaron Pannell, such that he was considered a fellow employee much more than just a worker for hire.)

In that interim, some long-time-coming facelift work was done on the restaurant: The kitchen had been alchemizing meals for nine years running without a single overhaul or renovation, the bar and the floors were ready for refinishing and a new rug upstairs was in order. After almost a decade, the Lynch Street Bistro finally stopped and took a breath.

The pause wasn't necessary. It's actually somewhat remarkable how innovative and memorable a meal the Lynch Street Bistro (whose menu has not changed after this recent break) continues to serve after so many years in business; few old-standby restaurants deliver at such a high caliber.

The Lynch Street Bistro is, for starters, a great-looking restaurant. Belying its demure brickface exterior -- it seems like a last-chance-saloon sort of dive bar from the outside, or maybe that's just the Anheuser-Busch plant across the street talking -- its insides exude a studied, casual elegance: black-and-white floor tiling, a wall-mounted fireplace and plenty of Miles Davis over the loudspeakers (though not too loud, natch). A fresh-faced young waitstaff, decked out in de rigueur Oxford shirts, ties and long white aprons, greets you, armed to the pearly-white teeth with extensive wisdom -- not just recited-by-rote information but wisdom -- about the menu and how it works. Their understanding of the wine list -- an alarmingly big wine list for such a place, with well over 50 bottles -- is comforting and spot-on. Even more impressive, though, was that on presenting an appetizer plate of Thai shrimp, one server made sure to suggest alternating bites with the jicama slaw, which served as accompaniment to another appetizer entirely, the Gulf-crab cakes, so as to cool the palette after blasts of the shrimp's wasabi crème fraîche.

When the appetizers are good here, they are very, very good, and when they are bad, they are awful. The aforementioned crab and shrimp starters fall into the first category -- particularly the Thai shrimp, firm and plump. The steak quesadilla's got a good burnt taste to it, and the fried artichoke's greaseless presentation fortunately avoids "Bloomin' Onion"-style hell. The duck Wellington, meanwhile, is a perfect piece of cuisine and should be upgraded to an entrée-sized portion at once: A palm-size amount of succulent game, decadently wrapped in puff pastry with fresh spinach and a warm wedge of Boursin cheese, is frankly not enough. Adding to all this scrumptiousness at the beginning of the meal is the house breadbasket and, most important, its Asiago-cheese-and-olive-oil dip, which will render a table of diners a pack of heathens and vultures.

What's curious about Lynch Street's few flawed starters is that they're some of the simplest dishes on the menu and that they seem to fall victim to simple mistakes. Chilled snow-crab claws, a cup of cocktail sauce their only decoration, were clearly not fresh; they were so mealy that they crumbled at first bite. The steamed mussels were bracingly, jarringly, make-a-pucker-face salty. And the house salad, though prepared with fine ingredients, came coated with so much oil that the lettuce leaves actually shone.

The entrée selection proves much more consistent; renovated or not, Lynch Street's kitchen illustrates equal deftness whether charring steaks, grilling fish or boiling pasta. Better still, originalities abound throughout the main course. The coq au vin, tender to the bone, is traced with a surprising sweetness by way of the applewood-smoked peppered bacon on top. Vegetable lasagna (the only entrée option for non-meat-eaters) is served up like a burrito or wrap -- the layers of pasta are rolled tight, thin and crisp and the marinara and ricotta used sparingly, almost like a dipping sauce. It's far from a traditional lasagna but certainly worthwhile in its own right.

The yellowtail jack, served over coconut basmati rice and topped with mango pieces (it's actually called "mango mojo" on the menu, but as far as I know that's not a technical culinary term) is outstanding, a lovely medley of not just tastes but temperatures -- the mango is chilled while the rest of the plate is hot. Coconut and mango, mild yet pungent, are perfect complements to the flavor of the yellowtail; it's a delicate fish flavor and could be easily overpowered. And the fish itself is heated so there's just a blush of pink in its middle.

Steaks and chops are also done right; it may not look it, but Lynch Street Bistro really is a red-meat-lover's dining destination. Chef Sharon Govreau, who's been working the Lynch Street stoves for about a year now, drenches her beef and lamb unapologetically in softened tarragon butter and Boursin cream cheese and caramelized onions. She also isn't afraid to go blood-red, also to great effect; one of my dining partners ordered the filet mignon rare and was so pleased with the results she damn near picked up the plate with her hands and licked it clean.

All of the meat dishes, as well as the coq au vin, come with substantial sides of mashed potatoes (and sometimes, though not denoted on the menu, a few spears of asparagus). The potatoes can also be ordered à la carte -- and should be done so if necessary. Never have I recalled a side of whipped spuds so fondly, with specific notes of garlic, onion and other flavors mixed in just right.

Although the desserts at Lynch Street Bistro more than hold their own, I wish they were somehow grander, more show-stopping. They're not mentioned on the printed menu, and it does come as a bit of a letdown to hear from the server that there are usually only three on any given night -- most often a crème brûlée, a cheesecake and a standard death-by-chocolate creation. (I believe this one was an undercooked flourless torte with the lava flow of warm chocolate in the middle, or at least something close to that.) All three desserts do nicely. The velvety cheesecake comes equipped with a moist but sturdy crust, and though I wish the crust on the crème brûlée were a tad more burnt, it's nothing to complain about. After the rising crescendo of content that comes from the entrées, I just wish there was more fanfare to the final course.

On weeknights, save for a few A-B execs downing Michelob Ultra Lights at the bar, Lynch Street Bistro is dead. Why is that? Perhaps the place is easy to forget because of its geography (Soulard ain't exactly known as a gastronomic nirvana, and you couldn't find a less trafficked street if you tried), or maybe it's because after so many years in business the name has faded from foodies' radars. That's a shame, because the Lynch Street Bistro is worthy of attention.