Dining in the dark

Hotel St. Germain forgets a culinary dictum: "The eye has its rights"

In 1996, Jim and Liz Cantrell purchased The Bistro and transformed its somewhat posh atmosphere with a corner fireplace and amber lighting into more casual space with couches in the bar and other modest furnishings. A former chef with the Four Seasons Hotel and an executive chef at the Barkley Hotel in Chicago, Jim Cantrell kept the basic menu structure intact, varying only the mix of tapas and entree items. The most recent revisions include 35 tapas items and 17 entrees with an emphasis on fresh seafood. The wine list has been expanded to include selections from California, France, Italy, and Spain.

And it's with the wine list that the "how" question first emerged. After ordering a bottle of Santa Sophia Bardolino, a light red wine from Italy's Veneto region, our server presented me with the bottle and poured a glass for tasting. Unless the Italians had recently taken to making wine from fermented 40-weight instead of grapes, the color of the wine--the hue of an 18-year-old Scotch--indicated trouble. I sent it back and requested another bottle that was in exactly the same condition. In all my years of dining, I have never returned a bottle of wine because it was unsound--in reality, the only legitimate reason to do so.

How can something like this occur from a modest list of perhaps 65 wines unless there is a serious lack of attention on the part of the restaurant, the distributor, or both? Our server returned with the list and invited me to select another wine, but it was several minutes before she checked back to take my order, a pattern of laxness that continued throughout the meal. Which brings me to the second segment in this series of Bistro "hows." On an evening when at most four tables were occupied at any one time, how can service be so woefully inattentive?

The third "how," of course, was the food. With several tapas and entree selections sampled, only a few rose above mediocre, most notably the Key lime pie, which had a thick graham-cracker crust, an intense tang in the custard, and fresh shreds of lime peel on the whipped cream topping. Virtually all roads leading to the pie, however, were treacherous. Our opening-menu salvo was a gazpacho. Speckled with chunks of cucumber and soggy croutons, this cold tomato soup was a disappointment thoroughly lacking in intensity and robustness. The grilled quail with fresh herbs, a hot tapas selection, was chewy and flavorful. But it was marred by a thick, bland egg-foo-yong-like demi glace that masked rather than enhanced the fowl.

Then there were the fried goat cheese cigars: logs of Montrachet goat cheese seasoned with paprika, cilantro, garlic, and herbs and wrapped in phyllo dough. These egg-roll-like cheese tubes were unappealingly greasy and overbearing. Astoundingly, a simple dish of mixed olives suffered from rancid kalamatas and nicoise olives with an odd, Vicks Vapo-Rub sort of flavor.

Tapas selections gradually improved. The Norwegian smoked salmon was moist, tender, and satisfying. But, in addition to sour cream and diced egg and onion, it was accompanied by capers that were mashed instead of whole--a somewhat disturbing peculiarity. Better still was the mini steak tartare, a hearty, flavorful chopped--not ground--mound of tenderloin seasoned with parsley, onion, Tabasco, and a little ketchup.

But the entrees stumbled. The lobster fettuccini with sun-dried tomatoes and pesto was speckled with tough, waxy bits of lobster washed in a pesto that tasted old and flat. And while the veal scaloppini was loaded with tender, juicy pieces of meat, the viscous demi glace splashed with marsala lumbered through the dish without adding anything of note.

Which leaves me with the original "how" question: How can a restaurant that obviously wishes to align itself with excellence let such obvious service and menu blunders slip right under its nose?

Hotel St. Germain. 2516 Maple, (214) 871-2516. Open for dinner by reservation only Tuesday-Saturday, 6-9 p.m.

The Bistro. 5405 W. Lovers Lane, (214) 352-1997. Open for lunch Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; for dinner, Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5:30-11 p.m.

Readers with comments may e-mail Mark Stuertz at markstz@juno.com.

Hotel St. Germain
Prix Fixe Menu $75 per person

The Bistro
Gazpacho soup $3.25
Mixed olives $1.50
Mini steak tartare $5.75
Norwegian smoked salmon $5.50
Fried goat cheese cigars $3.50
Lobster fettuccini $15.00
Key lime pie $4.50

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