Things aren't always what they seem.
Take, for instance, that free Caribbean cruise you won, only to find out that the definition of "free" had changed. Or that new Wilco disc you bought, expecting some more rootsy Midwestern twang. Or walking into the restaurant called 630 and expecting something special because, after all, it specializes in Mediterranean seafood, features live jazz and uses numbers for its name, just like a fancy restaurant.
With its warmly lighted bar area, clutter of empty wine bottles along the walls and cozy fire blazing in the dining section, entering 630 on a cold evening is as inviting as the pop of a wine cork among friends. A musician playing jazz on an electric keyboard keeps the mood convivial for those few revelers in the bar.
It looks cool; it feels hip.
What used to be the European Caffé, a slightly more formal and beloved restaurant, has been tamed with red and gold hues -- an attempt to make the space more casual and comfortable.
It's only when you're seated at your table and feel the green vinyl tablecloth beneath your fingertips that you begin to wonder -- something is amiss. In and of themselves, paper napkins aren't a bad thing, but combined with the vinyl, you wonder whether perhaps you've stepped into a barbecue joint instead of a restaurant that presents itself as slightly upscale.
Even 630's Web site (members.tripod.com/630jazz/) features photos of delicious-looking arty food, beautifully presented on attractive tables. What restaurant is that, anyway? None of those pretty entrées pictured in cyberspace is available on the real 630 menu. The artificial flowers scattered about as afterthoughts and the smell of bleach used to wipe off said vinyl tablecloths don't help first impressions. Neither does the complete lack of diners on a Saturday night during prime dining hours.
Entrées at 630 command $15 to $18, not exorbitant but certainly well within the realm of higher standards than those to which one might hold, say, a Red Lobster. Diners have a distinct set of psychological expectations when paying $18 for an entrée instead of $7. What is acceptable at the Pasta House doesn't seem like such a good deal once prices climb above $12.
That's why it was surprising when we found little tubs of margarine nestled in our basket of store-bought dinner rolls -- Mediterranean cuisine still calls for olive oil to be served with bread.
Equally surprising are the entrées. Seafood and pasta dishes make up the bulk of the menu, in keeping with the Mediterranean theme, but the dishes we sampled possessed none of the lightness and freshness of the style. Italian is the major accent here, but even that has the distinct St. Louis dialect of heavy, bland white sauces, such as what was used to top the spinach ravioli.
The salmon in blackberry sauce is a holdover from the European Caffé days, but I was steered away from it because our waiter thought it a bit too sweet to go with the bottle of pinot noir I ordered. Rather, I took him up on his recommendation of spinach-stuffed cod, a miserable and unsatisfying combination of a creamy spinach filling sandwiched between two overcooked, dry, chewy fillets. One dining partner recalled having the same experience with the dish last year.
Chewy honey-glazed carrots and a slapdash side of overcooked penne in a red sauce filled out the plate. At least the sauce was bright, light and flavorful. Pesto is easy to prepare, but it's apparently a challenge to 630's kitchen. Some dried basil flakes swimming in olive oil doesn't make for good pesto. The 630 version also lacks pine nuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano and the thick sweetness of fresh basil. Pour it over some overcooked pasta with rubbery rock shrimp and overly grilled dry chicken chunks, and you, too, can charge $18 -- extra for the salad.
Equally disappointing is the grilled pork chop, a favorite fall-winter comfort dish that would seem to match the cozy ambiance of the dining room. Judging from the chop alone, it's no wonder 630 purposely steers clear of offering beef (though one veal dish is offered). The slightly thicker-than-normal chop was sauced with a thin, flavorful spread of something creamy -- with a hint of citrus -- but the meat was as dry as jerky.
One dining partner who ordered the four-cheese pasta with chicken thought the sauce had bounce but found the strips of grilled chicken too tough to eat. The kitchen must use a blast furnace and then hold meats and fish at a constant 450 degrees for a few hours. At least the menu doesn't tout the overused "grilled to perfection" superlative. And is frozen spinach really a good side dish when it's so easy to use fresh greens?
Selecting wine can be difficult at 630, not because of the extensive list -- although short, it shows good value -- but because many of the wines listed aren't available. Even that bottle of pinot noir led to confusion. A French pinot noir is listed as the house wine, but it's not always available. The owner didn't know the current selection, so we asked to view the bottle before ordering it. A good time later, our waiter returned with a bottle of California pinot, opened and ready for pouring, without having first presented it to ensure that it was what we wanted.
Maybe it was miscommunication because of a loud keyboard player; maybe it was inexperience with wine. It's a quibble, perhaps, but paying attention to that type of detail is crucial when a restaurant commands upscale prices.
Cajun jambalaya pasta isn't Mediterranean, but 630's kitchen manages to pull it off nicely with chicken chunks in a slightly hot-and-spicy cream sauce, mixed with rock shrimp, peppers and onions. It's not remarkable, but compared to the other disappointing meals, it's downright spectacular.
630 offers a short list of appetizers in the $8 to $9 category -- not very good value for what's presented. Better calamari can be found elsewhere, meaning a lightly coated, crisply fried version. Most desserts are housemade, and the apple pie was good -- but not good enough to be priced at $5.50 a slice.
This restaurant is crazy about the number 630. It opened on June 30, 2001; dinner starts at 6:30 p.m.; and then there's the address. 630 draws a steady clientele for private lunches and parties on its off nights. In that setting, where most people congregate for the company rather than the food, 630 probably does quite well.
Even if you're not interested in a full dinner, 630 is a cozy spot in which to hang -- in the bar or the intimate backroom, with a few friends or a date. You can sip your drinks and nosh on appetizers while listening to live jazz. Just be warned that the cappuccino looks like the real deal -- frothy and rich.
But then again, things aren't always what they seem.