On the one side, Union Station is an undisputed gem, an architectural masterpiece steeped in history where it's easy for even the most jaded local to sigh and wax nostalgic for the grandiose era when it was truly the crossroads of the nation. On the other side, however, are less kind cuts -- high overhead costs for shops and restaurants, as well as obnoxiously high parking fees and having to cater at least some of your marketing to the kind of audience that enjoys food courts, fudge singers and T-shirt shops.
Into this mix comes Bacchus Brewing Co., a new microbrewery-based restaurant affiliated with both the European Caffe locally and a place called the Bluenote Bistro in Colorado. Bacchus opened roughly two months ago in the former Dierdorf & Hart's space, and a recent visit included a marvelous atmosphere tempered by some OK food, some very good food and terribly ambiguous service.
Following the formula for working microbreweries, huge metal vats now face both Market Street and the interior mall space of Union Station, with true "outdoors" dining on the Market side and all-weather courtyard tables inside the Station. The front dining room, in which we were seated, features views of Aloe Plaza and the Milles Fountain through elegant arched windows, with interior-design elements ranging from classical friezes to beer-flow pipes to a somewhat misleading case display of hundreds of beer bottles.
The beer display is not entirely accurate, because the bottled-beer list proper is actually much smaller, and we and the restaurant were placed at an additional handicap, from an evaluation standpoint, because the premise-brewed beer was not yet flowing. The tap-opening, so to speak, is scheduled for a "grand opening" celebration to be held April 20-25.
Although some pizzas and pastas are available, the main entree menu is a bit higher on the price scale, with entrees topping out at $19.95. The menu features clever integration of the brewer's art into several of the marinades and sauces: For instance, the grill list of steaks and chops is available sauced with cognac peppercorn and bearnaise but also with Indian Apple Pale Ale, Blackberry Wheat and porter beer, transforming, as was the case with my 12-ounce strip steak ($16.95), a basic dish into quite an interesting one. The beer sauce was a reduction around some shallots, and the result was a mildly oniony bite with a fruit finish -- a neat variation on steak flavoring. The steak itself could have been better prepared, though, with a bit too much gristle not having been trimmed off one end and a lack of sufficient searing on the skin.
Another good use of beer in preparation was the shrimp di pilsner appetizer ($8.50), five medium-large, shelled-to-the-tail shrimp over crisped angel-hair pasta. Beer-boiling is an established trick for cooking very moist shrimp, and the use of a crisp pilsner brew here gave the shrimp a clean, full flavor. Our other appetizer had a similar flavor burst, this time from a very fresh vegetable salsa. Three miniwraps ($4.95) were freshly deep-fried to a golden brown, similar to the approach taken with chimichangas, and the crispy exterior benefited both from the mildly spiced hashlike meat on the inside and from the full flavors of fresh red onion, tomato, zucchini and bits of cilantro in the salsa.
The most successful item of the evening, though, was the pollo carciofi ($12.95), pounded breast of chicken served under a mixture of artichokes, roasted garlic and sun-dried tomatoes and over mashed potatoes. The 10-or-so quarters of artichoke heart had a mild lemony flavor, the sun-dried tomatoes were much more prominent and the garlic had been roasted long enough to actually recede into the background -- a very well-executed, nicely balanced dish.
Service was prompt but pretty awkward. There were nightly specials, but we never heard about them until they were announced at the next table, nor did we see the "extensive wine list" with which the restaurant promotes itself.
Union Station itself caused part of our experience to be sidetracked. It was a weekend evening with a simultaneous Kiel Center event, and parking-traffic coordination showed absolutely no consideration for Station visitors. When we arrived, the back portion of the lot had been posted as cinema parking only, even though the front aisles were already filled to capacity, causing a large number of drivers to simply circle the lot before finally violating the cinema proscriptions. And despite this abundance of traffic, the western exit gates were closed when we left, causing a lineup at the two working tollbooths at the eastern gate and a distinctively unpleasant aftertaste at being nicked for 4 or 5 bucks on top of a relatively pricey meal. Why Station management can't recognize that this is a PR disaster for local business is beyond me, but I suppose the Station has managed to stay in business all these years, so maybe the parking gouging evens out over the long run.
And when it comes right down to it, I'd really like to see a place like Bacchus succeed, given its local affiliations and willingness to diverge from the chain sameness of other Station locations like Houlihan's (a one-hour wait on the evening we walked right into Bacchus) and the Hard Rock Cafe (an hour-and-a-half wait). But I think it's going to have to define its identity (fine dining? microbrew-bistro? billiards-and-cigar bar?) a bit better and, if it stays with the current range of entrees, work a little harder to make it a better value.
TIDBITS: So where do I get my flaky-spicy now? Cater Jamaica, the tiny storefront near Nobu's on Olive, has ceased sit-down meals to focus exclusively on the catering business that gives it its name and the bulk of its sales.
BACCHUS BREWING CO.
1820 Market St. (Union Station, downtown)
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-1:30 a.m. daily