Part of the reason I bailed on New York City and moved to St. Louis a year ago was to get away from places like Tangerine. Life provides plenty of organically occurring tragedy as it is; there's no need to go seeking the tragically hip in my nightlife. And this vegetarian hangout -- a Wash. Ave. scenemaker since 1996 and still the sole place on that strip to eat a "late" dinner (save for Rue 13's sushi bar) -- isn't just tragically hip; it's relentlessly, endlessly hip in every way, a choke-me-I'm-fabulous mishmash of Japanese anime on TV sets, Chinese paper lanterns hanging above the bar, cowboy retro-chic, Beach Blanket Bingo kitsch and Siamese fighting fish living atop the rafters in expensive-looking glass orbs, suggesting something metaphoric and ironic about the fishbowl that is downtown swank-swank society. One might have hoped the restaurant's recent additions of a lunch service and a meat menu might have ratcheted down its chi-chi quotient, giving it a more down-to-earth feel. So much for hope.
Those of you who've been to Tangerine know how uncomfortable it is, physically and mentally, to turn sideways and shuffle shoulder-first through that phalanx of well-coiffed barflies who congregate along the narrow passage opposite the bar. In fact, Tangerine is one of the few places I've been to in this town -- be they bars, clubs, restaurants, galleries or lounges (and Tangerine feels like all those things morphed into one) -- where I've had to pep-talk myself with a little "Hey, you frigging lived in New York. You were once at the same 30th birthday party as Dave Eggers. Don't even sweat these little punk monkeys." Except that every time I go to Tangerine, whether to eat or drink, I remember why I can't stand Dave Eggers and his whole treat-your-enemies-badly-and-your-fans-even-worse posture. Tangerine is St. Louis' closest assimilation to the Times' SundayStyles section.
Speaking of New York, tragedy and disrespecting your friends, let's start with Tangerine's drink menu. I was offended paying $8 for a cocktail in Manhattan circa 1998 (i.e., before the dot-com crap-out), let alone here and now. And charging three bucks for a pint of Pabst must be the biggest beverage rip-off this side of Lambert Airport. Concoctions are named after Rat Packers, Beat writers, Latin American rebels, astronauts, Elvis movies -- pretty much every twentieth-century iconic reference not already claimed by Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" -- and whipped up by bartenders who, guy or gal, tattooed or virgin-skinned, are as cute as a bug's fingernails. Among the 40-odd mixed drinks available, flavors run from the Bubble Yum sugarfest that is Tangerine Night (a rum/banana liqueur/grenadine sucker punch that will spoil your dinner) to the smooth, adult-tasting, $7 Castro margarita (never have I sampled a tequila drink so well-poured that I didn't shudder once). Beer and wine selections are meager and uninspired; wines aren't even available by the bottle.
On its menu-menu, Tangerine twice sasses customers. The first item on the list reads "stupid toasted ravioli with an unassuming tomato sauce." What is this, ordering as performance art? You're a chump if you want this, but that doesn't make us chumps for choosing to sell it to you? The second bit of cheekiness is that Tangerine titles its menu "Good Food."
Impudent, but accurate. Yes, the food at Tangerine is good.
Though Tangerine's too-cool-for-schoolness would probably assure a steady stream of wannabes walking through the door no matter what the food tasted like -- and ironically, the most ho-hum dish on the menu is the standard-issue leaves-and-dressing house salad -- what has rendered chef and owner Blake Brokaw's endeavor a long-running success is his knack for making vegetables stand up and strut around and show off like animal flesh. At its best, Brokaw's handiwork can go eyebud to eyeball against meats and come off as hearty and succulent. To wit: the bruschetta, assembled with marinated, grilled eggplant and roasted garlic; the appetizer plate of hefty baby mushrooms, oozing a lemon, garlic and olive oil marinade; and the morel mushroom stroganoff, as stick-to-your-ribs as any beef stew or bowl of grits. The chicken-fried portobello meshes the fat mushroom's savoriness with the indulgence of the deep fryer; its breaded coat is terrifically crisp, the inside moist and flavorful. An appetizer of spinach and feta strudel, zinged up with some lemon butter, showcases how fantastically its pair of headlining ingredients embrace one another, while "the best mac and cheese" can aptly be so called because it manages to taste completely homemade and just like Kraft all at once.
The introduction of meat to Tangerine's tableau, I'm told, was simply a matter of customer demand. (After all, most people don't go there because they're sticking to strict vegetarian diets.) To please vegans, the four meat entrées are prepared completely separately from other fare, and to tickle fancies, the meat menu is presented all by itself on a small glossy card entitled "Clandestine Carnivores," which your server slips from an apron pocket. In contrast to the cliquishness of Tangerine's other accoutrements, this is a perfect example of how an establishment can have a little fun and be a bit flippant without outright fazing customers. And while the barbecued brisket suffers from an oversmothering of sauce, the kitchen pulls off the remaining three offerings -- meat loaf, baked chicken breast (that tastes just like turkey) and roasted pork loin, all of them served with mashed potatoes, gravy and (natch) a vegetable -- with ease, as if they'd been house specialties all along. If only the rest of Tangerine, the non-edible aspects, exuded such relaxed, unfettered aplomb.
If a couple of courses can Calgon you away from the hipster harem, dessert will have reality crashing back down upon you. There is one, and it is not on the menu or chatted up by the waitstaff, and it sucks. It's a fried banana egg roll -- basically a banana trapped in a wonton-like shell and quartered. It's icky, quite frankly, and it had our whole table frowning. No accompanying ice cream, no whipped cream, no chocolate sauce. Which is odd, and even a little insulting, considering that Brokaw also operates the Chocolate Bar, the raved-about dessert café in Lafayette Square that does a business as swift as any full-fledged restaurant. I understand how outré dessert would be at a place like Tangerine -- you might as well ask for a glass of milk with your meal -- but something understated in sweetness and presentation, like a scoop of green tea ice cream in an enamel-white rice bowl, would be much appreciated.
Or you could always order another Tangerine Night.