Hot and Bothered

Provisions Bistro turns up the heat after morphing out of its Grenache beginnings

Our waiter, who was goofy, said he had hit upon a brilliant idea: He would bring out the appetizer before serving the rest of our dinner. He made this announcement with a funny kind of earnestness, as if he really believed, or expected us to believe, that he, the Archimedes of the restaurant world, had singlehandedly invented the concept of the first course.

Not knowing quite what to make of this awkward moment of restaurant weirdness, and little suspecting that it would continue for the duration of the meal, we did what he seemed to want us to do, which was congratulate him with enthusiasm. We chose not to notice that he'd spilled our toast points on the table, because the steaming crock of crab-and-artichoke dip looked fabulous.

Fabulous it was, if hot as plutonium. Cautiously I peeled back a layer of cauterized cheese to reveal a molten white goop that was clearly the result of kitschy gourmets' performing lab tests on crab Rangoon filling. Its only flaw (aside from a few second-degree tongue burns) was that we ran out of toast before we ran out of goop. The lad eventually brought more, but by that time, of course, the soup had arrived.

If I am given to impassioned hyperbole on the subject of soup, it is because no other food deals so effectively with the great question of man's relationship to the cosmos. It is no accident that lyric biologists use the word "soup" to describe the primitive slime from which all life derives. In a single pot are gathered the checkered culinary narratives of human evolution -- the violence, the poetry, the desires, the failures, the meat products -- simmered down to a single nurturing plasma that stimulates the intellect, tones the disposition and temporarily flips off the irony switch. From the perspective of a slothful gourmand given to sopping (my favorite perspective), no other food delivers as much contentment with as little effort. Without soup -- and here I quote an acquaintance who was actually talking about M·A·C "Rebel" lipstick but whose thoughtful reflection applies to soup with equal resonance -- life would be a hollow lie.

And so it was that Provisions' chilled cucumber bisque came to represent one of the darker passages in the aforementioned checkered narrative. The dish may be summed up as a bland, milky liquid into which had been chucked a few exhausted salad shrimp. These mealy, flavorless little crustaceans -- sold peeled, precooked and frozen in big frost-covered bags -- were called "ocean roaches" in one kitchen where I used to work; no entity which is not a flamingo should ever be fed these things. Their best use is to apply them, still frozen in the bag, to a sprained ankle. I generally don't make strident pleas to professional chefs, but in this case, as the future of a potentially decent soup swings in the balance, I cannot stifle a cry of "For the luvvagod, order some fresh prawns!"

No less perplexing a challenge was the five-onion soup. Once again peeling back a top layer of scorched cheese, we made a shocking discovery which forced us to question the very concept of soup as we know it: There was not a drop of liquid of any kind in the bowl -- only a pulsating clot of infernally hot bread and caramelized onion. We all agreed that this was pretty unusual in a soup. Because of my fondness for onions in any form, I'd have been perfectly willing to overlook the absence of any actual stock, broth, consommé or potage, except that the remaining substrate had a disagreeable burnt aftertaste.

At this point I began pining for Grenache, the Mediterranean-inspired restaurant that until recently occupied this urbane Clayton storefront. Despite Grenache's seeming acquisition of a new chef every six months, I'd had more than one superb dinner under its auspices. Provisions retains the same owner (the excellent Wine and Cheese Place, located next door) and interesting interior architecture but has shifted the culinary emphasis to casual "American" dishes. Whether this theme change reflects a post--September 11 trend among St. Louisans to take a xenophobic view of couscous I can't say, but I will offer an observation: The new menu is ham-fisted and obvious compared with the nimbly exotic approach of the old Grenache. There is, for example, a meatloaf/pot-roast section titled "comfort food." I can't comment on whether obsessive comfort-seeking really is the right of (selected) Americans in this age of swarthy evildoers and mosquito plagues, but there is a difference between comfort and ennui. Doubtless Provisions' "comfort food" is as first-rate as can be, but let's face it: This kind of cooking is bland by definition. I ask you, what do you want to eat after a hard day of fearing terrorists? Meatloaf? I think not. You want a delicious duck confit with fig sauce.

This is not to imply that Provisions is all meatloaf, all the time. My accomplice Bart was deliriously happy with his tasty vegetarian zucchini-and-potato gratin, a sustaining but not overly heavy casserole served in another smoldering crock (I'll give 'em this: Hot food at Provisions is hot). Also from the non--comfort-food section: lobster ravioli in saffron cream (unfortunately, this dish lost points when the sauce turned out to be indecently fishy). The "ceviche gazpacho" was more engaging; we found a smattering of inoffensive seafood shreds and fresh basil in the center of a plate of a tangy chilled soup. And though it hovered ominously in the suburbs of comfortville, the coq au vin with mashed potatoes was good and sturdy.

Fortunately, the appetizers were less comforting than predictable workhorse entrées such as coq au vin. Smoked shrimp wontons were stuffed with a pungent, sweetish sort of pâte so unshrimplike that Bart, a diehard pescetarian, suspected it was pork. They were, in any event, delicious dunked in hoisin. Another first course -- which I should have ordered as dessert -- became my favorite of the evening: warm peaches and a chunk of Spanish blue cheese drizzled with honey. The dish was a triumph of flavor and simplicity.

Simplicity, however, isn't always the key to success: I'd be a chump to recommend the orange roughy to anyone who actually likes food. It was baked in parchment with plain rice and a few vegetables -- no sauce, no seasoning, no fat, no flavor. And a salad of "heirloom" tomatoes with fresh mozzarella for which I'd had high hopes was anticlimactically bland and, at eight bucks for three small slices of overhyped tomato, kinda pricey (on another visit, the dish contained four slices, but still).

Making the case for a tad more complexity were a tender veal shank and a beef fillet grilled medium-rare, both cooked and sauced with no small finesse. The veal had a delicate, understated mustard sauce, the fillet a sophisticated brandy-peppercorn. Both came with excellent sautéed potatoes and were as good as any of their ilk that I have had in town.

One particularly puzzling aspect of our Provisions experience was the amateur waitstaff. Twice we had servers who appeared to have never waited a table before in their lives. Not that they weren't friendly and hospitable; clearly they were giving it their best shot. We were pulling for 'em, too, but it was glaringly evident that they were hanging by a thread. They were unfamiliar with the menu, mixed up wine orders, seemed baffled by dessert cheese and committed all manner of minor gaffes that even a week on the job should have made impossible. Consequently, dinner became a painful sort of suspense drama (Will she bring the right wine this time? Will he drop the tray? Will we ever get the check?). At one point we were read a list of desserts, only to be left hanging long, long into the night. Eventually we gave up hope, counting ourselves lucky that we'd somehow gotten coffee (never mind that it was somebody else's, brought to us by mistake). The next time, though, Bart and I persevered through the considerable post-entrée lag. We were rewarded with a wonderful cantaloupe sorbet that was, we decided in about two seconds, worth the wait.