I suspect that the owners of the Seven Gables Inn secretly wish their Tudor-style boutique hotel didn't come saddled with so much restaurant space on its ground floor. For one thing, it leaves no room for a proper welcoming area for overnight guests. A narrow corridor, sandwiched between the bar area to the south and the more formal dining room to the north, makes do as the hotel entrance, with nary a bellhop or even a rack of brochures in sight. Instead, a lone receptionist sits waiting behind a large wooden desk at the far end of the hall, looking more like an office receptionist than a hotel clerk.
For another, the Seven Gables hasn't had much luck in recent years establishing a successful dining enterprise within its environs. Most notoriously, local chef-star Steve Gontram, founder of Harvest, crashed and burned with a place there a while back. Since then, the eateries have changed names, chefs and concepts frequently enough that, on Seven Gables' Web site, dining options include "The Restaurant," "The Bar & Bistro" and "The Garden Court" (this last a brick-laid, Von Trappy al fresco space behind the reception desk) as if the owners have thrown up their hands at keeping pace with the changes.
The hotel's latest attempt at staking a claim amid downtown Clayton's dining options is Bistro Tercet. The name doesn't exactly inspire confidence. "Bistro" these days is a pretty much meaningless signifier. And what the heck is a "tercet," anyway? (Presumably the name refers to the abovementioned trio or tercet, if you wanna get fancy of dining options. Which simply nails down my point.)
The revamped décor is like something out of Under the Tuscan Sun sunny yellow walls painted as if crawling with vines, faux tapestries, a gurgling fountain but the menu adheres to no culinary genre. It's a scattershot mishmash of modern and old-fashioned, nouvelle and New American: lobster this, wonton that, skewers here, club sandwiches there, pot pies and quesadillas and burgers and sopaipillas and lamb shank and liver. That may be par for the course nowadays which is more than I can say for the food here. Not that it's unpalatable, just sorely lacking.
Lobster cocktail asserted itself with a bold presentation: a quartet of shell-on tail sections lined up along the rim of a wineglass above a bed of ice, with a side shot of cocktail sauce for dipping. But the shells looked dull and unappetizing, more than a little gray around the edges, and the meat underneath was mealy. In a nod to 1980s nouvelle, half a lemon was cut Florentine-style and wrapped in cheesecloth. In a nod to kitchen thrift, the bistro's lunch menu includes a lobster pot pie, its thickly condensed cream sauce warm and sweet, but its itsy orange bits of meat mere trifles. A handful of oyster crackers would have made a more forceful impression.
Other than the pot pie's popover cap, there was little difference between it and the soup of the day, a cod chowder. Both suffered from too little fish and a cream sauce that got carried away. The chowder managed to be plush and mealy sort of like eating velvet.
Barbecue-chicken wontons were just plain silly, a scoop of burnt-orange mush that tasted nothing like chicken; more like bar food mired in a crisp trap. Monochromatic skewers of sweet white onion, dry white chicken and dehydrated shrivels of shiitake mushrooms proved to be another letdown. Shiitakes sound exotic, but a bigger, plumper, juicier brand of mushroom button mushrooms, even would have been a better choice. The skewers were plated on a thatch of greens coated with a buttery-tasting dressing, which seemed irrelevant to the kebabs.
An entrée of red snapper, on the other hand, was snappy indeed a frisky piece of fish whose breading provided a hint of toasty flavor nicely offset by a topping of a well-tempered and sweet hollandaise-like sauce. On the side was a cake of starch best described as a Wild Rice Krispie Square a rare bit of levity. A lamb shank was as big as a cow's heart, with a fantastic piece of bone jutting out that the dog back home will adore. Its flesh was slippery from lots of fat, and browned enough (though ordered medium) to resemble mutton. A side of mashed potatoes evinced surprising integrity, courtesy of chickpeas that had been whipped in.
Two salads did nothing but disappoint. The "Seven Gables" was nothing special a gaggle of field greens, red bell pepper and tomatoes tossed with crumbles of unjustifiably salty blue cheese. The incongruously named "Black and Blue" came to the table pink, thanks to a Pepto-hued raspberry dressing. This mess of chopped romaine, with gnarled scraps of burnt steak and dots of blue cheese (voilà: "black and blue"!) was surprisingly vapid.
The best of the desserts was cinnamon ice cream made by Serendipity in Webster Groves, served on a sopaipilla with a couple of nifty grilled pineapple rings for good measure. There's also a standard-issue flourless chocolate torte the "bistro" of desserts drizzled with more of that Pepto raspberry sauce. It's fine, but it takes a heck of a lot more than this to wow with chocolate.
Bistro Tercet's wine list is brief, and less than inspiring. When Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages, the king of fancy-sounding supermarket wines, is the first red on the list, that spells buzzkill.
Table settings in the dining room include bread plates, yet on a Saturday night we were never offered bread. The dinner menu touts a sorbet intermezzo after the appetizers and before the entrées, but we never saw that either. I doubt that owed to harried help; ours was one of only two tables occupied between the prime hours of 7 and 9 p.m. If only for the sake of the servers, who are quite friendly, I hope such sad turnout is atypical.