Dining » Cafe

Grouse of the Seven Gables

Will this Clayton inn ever get an above-par eatery?


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.

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