Sometimes, old lines are the best lines. So this week, I have to ask: What's a chef like you doin' in a joint like this?
When I told friends I was going to review the food at what used to be known as the State Bar, they were skeptical. At least. Incredulous might better describe it. That's what raised eyebrows means, isn't it?
I knew what they meant. I don't live in some ivory tower of chichi shiitake, and the State has always been a party place for bohemians on parade--always had a self-consciously downtown attitude, a place to drink watery martinis and smoke and talk about art or something.
But I'd received a menu in the mail, an interesting sheet of translucent plastic, listing ingredients like--whaddya know--portabello mushrooms, gorgonzola cheese, duck confit, tarragon.
The State is just as dark as I remembered; even those cute little rheostats at each booth only brighten the gloom to dim. And when I asked what white wine I could order by the glass, the waitress answered "zinfandel." Not a promising beginning.
But there was that menu. Though it seemed unlikely that a place that didn't know red wine from white from pink could possibly serve anything that lived up to those descriptions.
The waitress shot down another lure when she brought us the list of specials written on a portable dry-erase board and propped on the table--the kitchen was out of duck confit, so the spring rolls were unavailable. Well, we forged on and ordered three of the four appetizers remaining, passing on the pate selection and the calamari (braised and stuffed with turkey-fennel sausage). Then came the soup, a tangle of sweet onion threads cooked to caramel with earthy mushrooms in a deep, dark broth, a shock of flavor, topped with a crouton smeared with gorgonzola. Three spoons, not just the one who ordered it, scraped the bowl clean, all of us wishing out loud for some good bread to sop the last drops.
The goat-feta tart, a tangy circle of creamy curds balanced by the fruitiness of a raspberry vinaigrette over bitter greens, received the same unanimous clashing of forks and calls for bread; so did the meaty mushroom, portabello of course, topped with sticks of herbed puff pastry that melted in the mouth, and sauced with wine and butter.
We wished for wine in a glass, too, but the idea was taxing to our waitress; she kept looking over her shoulder helplessly at the bartender. We did without. When we asked for information about entrees, she had more resources, returning to the table with a Xeroxed sheet that surely was given to the staff to familiarize them with the food they were serving. Our waitress saved a mental step and handed us the sheet to study.
So we ordered a two-inch thick fillet of salmon, just cooked, then spread with a duxelles of those mushrooms again and robed in buttery puff pastry, a version of coulibiac, perhaps, sauced with tarragon and butter, death-defyingly rich, delicious. And two disks of tenderloin, rose-red within, topped with gratinee of crumbs and gorgonzola. Even grilled chicken--sometimes I think I will lay down and die rather than eat it again--was good and juicy, glazed with red wine and mustard, sided with a wild, warm three-grain "tabouleh." (The waitress referred us to our printed sheet when we happened to inquire about which three grains. Cracked wheat, wild rice, brown rice.)
The waitress couldn't tell us much about the chef. He used to work at Star Canyon. And may again, I guess.
I don't care how cool the place is supposed to be--food like this deserves more support. Not even cuisine can survive in a vacuum. It requires good bread, decent wine, adequate service. Or the chef won't be able to serve food like this much longer. Nobody will ask him to.
--Mary Brown Malouf
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The State Bar: 3611 Parry, 827-1188. Open daily for dinner 6 p.m. to midnight.
Wild Mushroom and Onion Soup $3.75
Braised Portabello Mushrooms $5.95
Salmon in Puff Pastry with Portabello Duxelles and Tarragon Butter Sauce $11.