It was while perusing the dinner menu at Mélange, a likable three-month-old restaurant on the northern fringe of the Central West End, that a friend and dining partner uttered one of the most bald-faced truths I've heard lately about the St. Louis dining scene:
"Everybody has seared tuna on the menu these days."
Yep, whether it's a cozy, comfort-food bistro, a new tapas joint, someplace fusion or someplace fancy, the fist-size hunk o' pan-seared ahi has become all-around ubiquitous. It's not hard to see why. Compared to baking, roasting or sautéing, searing is quick and easy. Use a sashimi-grade cut, and the tuna comes out fine even if you char it on the outside (as long as you don't overcook it). It pairs best with equally light and simple sides (maybe some steamed veggies). It's one of the healthier restaurant entrées out there. It's a crowd-pleaser.
At a restaurant that touts its eclecticism in its very name, though, seared tuna came as a bit of a letdown.
Mélange is a reincarnation of Kirk's American Bistro, which for about seven years (until this past July) flew just under the local restaurant-scene radar in the same spot, a handsome historic building that originally served as a showroom for Pierce-Arrow automobiles. With Mélange, Kirk's executive chef, Christopher Lee, returns in the same role. His father Ed, a former partner and pastry chef at Kirk's, is now Mélange's pastry chef and a co-owner of the business along with his wife, Mary.
The space's interior, formerly an understated black-and-white affair, has been given a color-palette makeover. Reddish-amber tones, used judiciously along the upholstered booths and the mod ceiling fixtures, render Mélange's dining room a bit too self-conscious. Especially when compared to the adjacent bar (now partitioned off by a wall), which is still as seductively dark and prewar-boozy as ever, the main room feels like a set piece. The best thing about the space remains its floor-to-ceiling, wraparound windows, which cut right through the stylishness and invite in an almost European streetscape. (It really is too bad that, given Mélange's location just a couple of blocks north of the "nice" part of the Central West End, the view is better for keeping an eye on your car than for people-watching.)
The management seems to dig the word "mélange." It appears on the menu more than once. The house salad, though labeled simply "house salad" and not "Mélange salad," is described as "a mélange of field greens, shredded butternut squash, cucumbers and herbs..."; the beef brisket entrée comes with "a mélange of mushrooms, leeks and carrots." And when we inquired on one visit about the fresh fish of the day, we learned it was "a mélange of fish" (which doesn't sound very appetizing).
And they take the word literally. There's little attempt at fusion food here; the menu reads more like a multiculti, United Colors of Benetton, "It's a Small World After All" bill of fare. It's possible to order a meal of dolmades, shrimp bisque and spaetzle, or tuna tartare, Caesar salad and liver and onions.
The dolmades, wrapped in savoy cabbage rather than the traditional grape leaves, arrive accompanied by the musky, mushy smell of cooked cabbage, but the scent belies the sweetness, which is finely accented by crisp pine nuts inside. A half-dozen golf-ball-size albóndigas (South American meatballs), presented in a casserole dish with lots of salsa borracho (drunken salsa: chiles, crumbled cheese and tequila), are tender to the tooth yet tough on the palate, their spices headstrong and blazing; the overall effect is like a spiced pot roast.
Chunks of lobster-tail meat breaded with panko (coarse Japanese breadcrumbs) and flash-fried didn't live up to expectations; their taste was more la-di-da fried, less ooh- la-la lobster. They did come with two nice dipping sauces, though: a wasabi mayonnaise and a sweet chile sauce, neither of which went over-the-top despite the potentially harsh ingredients. A pair of lump crab-and-langoustine crab cakes, on the other hand, were quite good, lusciously unbreaded -- a crab-cake style that seems more and more popular these days -- and teeming with sweet shellfish flavor. But as with the seared tuna, having this on the menu smacks more of trend-chasing than of trend-making.
Served in a big, deep bowl, the spaetzle had a texture that fell somewhere at the intersection of dumplings, al dente pasta and Thanksgiving stuffing, delightfully punctuated by the sweet high notes of roasted parsnips. About halfway through, though, the slick heaviness of the truffle oil pooled in the bottom of the bowl began to get to me. After a while it devolved into a love-hate thing -- like trying to get to the bottom of a bucket of movie popcorn.
The brisket got off to a bad start and didn't get better, thanks to leathery beef that bore more than a passing resemblance to jerky. A roasted half of a free-range chicken was nothing special, its meat a tad on the dry side, its skin bland and lifeless. The chicken was plated with a just-fine arrangement of haricots verts, julienned carrots and mashed potatoes. The same sides appeared with liver and onions -- which emerged as one of Mélange's best entrées. No matter how well it's been prepared, eating liver can be like chewing on a sweat-soaked towel. Not here: Matched up with caramelized onions and smoked pepper bacon, the sautéed veal liver positively zinged.
It was nice to see that Mélange bakes its own bread, but the results can be disappointing. On one visit the rolls were downright bad, dense inside and tasting of nothing. On another visit we were never offered bread at all, despite the fact that bread plates and butter knives sat unused throughout the meal. Another restaurant basic, the house salad, was uninspired, a been-there-done-that blend of field greens, a pinch of what must have been the described butternut squash but may as well have been carrots, a parcel of tomato quarters and cuke slices along the rim of the plate and a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette.
The senior Mr. Lee has assembled an excellent dessert list, which includes a Grand Marnier-soused carrot cake and a sinfully dense chocolate pot-au-crème doused with raspberry sauce and crowned with homemade whipped cream. There's also a vanilla-bean crème brûlée -- the seared tuna of local desserts, seen just about everywhere -- that's so whisper-light, it manages to outdo all other versions of the omnipresent dessert.
Kirk's, though quite a fine restaurant, was never able to overcome its location and instill itself in the hearts and bellies of a critical mass of St. Louis diners. Mélange seems intent on making a louder splash. With some fine-tuning in the kitchen -- and perhaps a little more volume on the menu -- it may yet stand out.