The latest brave soul trying to make a go in the charming, funky space overlooking the pocket park at Grand Boulevard and Washington Avenue is Eddie Neill, well-known for hotspots past and present T.P. Neill's, Café Provençal, Eddie's Steak & Chop and Malmaison. Because Neill is a St. Louis University grad and son of a SLU professor, the trip back to Midtown is thus also something of a homecoming for him.
Neill returns apparently believing that former mayor and Grand Center head Vince Schoemehl, along with SLU president the Rev. Lawrence Biondi and a growing army of developers and promoters, is finally going to realize the decades-old dream of transforming the neighborhood into a night-and-day, seven-days-a-week activity zone. Several steps have been taken: the resurrection of the Continental Building; the bulldozing of the deteriorating building at the northeast corner of Grand and Lindell Boulevard; the completion of the Pulitzer Center for the Arts; new locations for both Cardinal Ritter High School and Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis; and a major residential rehab project (that's thus far been almost totally ignored by the mainstream media), the multimillion-dollar renovation of the old Coronado Hotel/Lewis Hall at Lindell and Spring Avenue into apartments and condos.
At the same time, however, board-ups and vacant spaces remain, resulting in a certain urban grittiness. And as we found out in visiting the new incarnation of The Bistro once on a weekend and once on a weeknight, when the entertainment venues are dark the accompanying lack of activity is still very much a problem.
Our Saturday-evening visit was the expected spectacle. The downstairs dining area of The Bistro was packed to capacity two hours in advance of curtain time at the Fox Theatre, and only a few tables were open on the mezzanine overlooking the park. Neill was overseeing everything. He's diverted the Bistro's menu almost entirely away from France and now draws on an eclectic group of influences that includes everything from Chesapeake Bay to the Caribbean. It's possible to eat a whole meal, but for those who don't want to settle too heavily into their theater seats afterward, the menu offers lighter choices, such as a salmon Niçoise salad, a bayou shrimp-salad sandwich and a cheese-and-sausage platter. Appetizers, priced at $7-$9, are generally large enough to hold you over through the final curtain.
We were asked immediately on being seated whether we'd be going to a show. We weren't, but the service was still attentive and brisk, with appetizers coming out within several minutes of our order and entrées following almost immediately after we'd finished the initial course. The menu's overall theme seems to be dishes that are interesting but not terribly complicated. An appetizer of three corn cakes, with fresh corn mixed in cornbread, was topped with dollops of goat cheese and a sweetly pickled onion; underneath, a cool cucumber-and-red-pepper salsa was crunched up with thin slices of almond. Another appetizer, mushroom "tartare," consisting of deep-brown wild mushrooms hacked into a consistency coarser than a paste but finer than slices, was served with hardened slices of French bread and onion, carrots and capers.
Our entrées that evening were a chicken "Basquaise" and a roasted portobello-mushroom "stack." The former was a leg quarter set atop a breast quarter, with crispy, dark, well-herbed skin tempered with a hint of sweetness from sherry. This in turn sat atop a bed of mashed potatoes swimming in a tomato-based sauce flavored lightly with chorizo, as well as a major dose of green and red bell peppers. The "stack" was basically a goat-cheese sandwich, with the giant caps of portobello mushrooms acting as the bread, and also including field greens, lightly roasted tomatoes and carrots and broccoli. Unfortunately, the vegetables were cooked too far past crispness.
On this visit, at least, we felt that the house-made desserts could also serve as an ideal postperformance finale. The warm chocolate cake, described by our waitress as a "pudding cake," was light enough to resemble a soufflé; it contained both a dark liquidy chocolate and a white-chocolate cream on top and inside, as well as a garnish of richly flavored brandied cherries. Honey mousse seems to have shown up on the trend meter this year; this was the second time in as many weeks that we'd seen it offered as a special dessert. The Bistro's version was accompanied by fresh, sweet pears poached in a raspberry liquid and then served with squiggles of dense raspberry sauce with a consistency approaching that of ketchup.
But then there was the weeknight visit. We showed up just after 6 p.m. It was still daylight, with a few office and gallery workers leaving their jobs and walking around outside, but there was no one at the host's station -- and just one person visible in all of the restaurant, cleaning glasses and setting tables. After a notable lack of acknowledgment, we asked whether dinner was being served, and the man inexplicably responded, "Yes, but not until after 5."
After realizing that naptime must have ended long before, he seated us and proceeded to provide excellent service (which wasn't all that surprising, given that we were the only customers the whole hour or so we were there). Even so, there were huge gaps that hadn't occurred even when the restaurant was close to capacity. We had hoped to try the Cuban pot roast; they were out. The Niçoise salad was, according to the menu description, supposed to contain green beans and potatoes, but these were missing -- as was any character to the salad at all. A crab Imperial appetizer contained lots of crab, lots of cheese and a strong bell-pepper flavor, but the fried calamari was barely warm when it came out and cold by the time we were halfway through it. On the plus side, the braised lamb shank we took in place of the pot roast was dense and well complemented by a base of chopped tomatoes, olives and fresh dots of feta cheese. But the dessert of mocha crème caramel had an unpleasant bitterness and lacked much essence of either chocolate or coffee.
The musical selection that evening was Aretha Franklin, but she had to compete with one of the staff, who was making a personal call from just behind the host's station. "You'd better think," indeed -- even if there is only one party in the whole dining room.
And afterward, as we walked to our car in the dimming vestiges of daylight, the more desolate alter ego of the neighborhood was increasingly evident. A woman walked by the front of the restaurant, only to reappear a few moments later riding on the hood of a car being driven down Washington. What appeared to be a fountain in the small park turned out to be inoperable, boarded over with disintegrating plywood. And we certainly wondered what the skeleton staff in The Bistro was going to do for the remaining three hours of operation.
We still have expectations that this tale of two cities will have a happy ending, but the fact that the Grand strip is still a dead zone on any given day or night -- despite its location just a few short blocks from a major university with 20,000 or so potential customers -- well, that's obviously frustrating. Hang in there, Eddie. Maybe now that you've built it, they will come, and others will follow.