My girlfriend returned from the restroom at Bar Louie shaking her head.
"What?" I asked, expecting anticipating a tale of Lindsay Lohanesque debauchery in a stall, maybe a cameo appearance by those brawling lesbian Carolina Panther cheerleaders.
"Shorts," she said.
"Short-shorts. I don't know how she got into them. And I have no idea how she's going to get back out."
It was Friday night, two days after an unexpectedly vicious thunderstorm knocked out power to a half-million St. Louisans, and we were happy to be anywhere with air-conditioning and ice-cold booze. We weren't alone. This two-month-old Central West End hot spot teemed with the young, the restless and the powerless. Twentysomething guys with perfectly mussed hair, fitted shirts and sweaty bottles of beer kept one eye on the flat-screen TVs (the Cards up early on LA) and the other on the black-clad women crammed four or five tight into the swank wraparound booths. A DJ spun a loud LOUD! mix of '80s pop and contemporary crunk; at one point he played, in its entirety, Guns N' Roses' "Paradise City." I wanted to order a shot of Jack Daniel's and toast Jennifer, the baby sitter who first sat me down in front of MTV.
Instead I ordered a beer. I'd already scanned the list of "Small Plates," and nothing pairs better with the deep-fried and queso-topped than a crisp lager or pale ale. My girlfriend and our two friends ordered from Bar Louie's list of specialty drinks. One friend had the Havana Classic, a mojito made with Cruzan Estate Five Year rum, while the other chose the "Kokomojito," featuring Cruzan Pineapple rum and fresh pineapple juice. Both were cloyingly sweet, too heavy on the simple syrup. On the other hand, my better half's pomegranate margarita was excellent, the blend of tart pomegranate syrup and fresh cranberry and lime juices with smooth Patrón Silver tequila surprisingly thirst-quenching. My beer was frosty, and I was pleased.
I must have been desperate for that beer. I was so engrossed in it that I missed the return from the women's room of the Woman in Tight Shorts. ("You didn't miss much," one of my friends said. "Just boobs and legs.") I wasn't even bitching about being in a chain restaurant.
The original Bar Louie opened in Chicago in 1991. The chain now boasts locations in six states. In 2002 Restaurant Hospitality Magazine named Bar Louie a "Concept of Tomorrow," but I'm not sure what that concept is, exactly. On Friday night there was a definite hipster-cocktail-lounge vibe. Bar Louie's logo is a martini glass, and a large photograph of the Rat Pack hangs on a wall in the lounge although I can't imagine Frank, Dean or Sammy ordering one of the fruit-and-vodka concoctions Bar Louie calls a martini. When I returned for dinner on a calmer, brighter Saturday evening and for lunch on a weekday afternoon, I could have been in any bar-and-grill, anywhere. Without the throngs of young adults, the massive space seemed cold.
The menu, too, has a certain "anywhere" quality. The list of "Small Plates" (few of the plates are small, and some, like the spicy chicken nachos, are dauntingly big) is a greatest-hits collection of crowd-pleasing bar-and-grill appetizers. The only surprise was the plate of hummus, tabbouleh and tzatziki, served with warm pita wedges and large slices of cucumber. With a squeeze of fresh lemon (you have to ask for a wedge), the hummus and the tabbouleh were delicious, with clean, bright flavors that awakened my palate instead of deadening it as the heavy appetizers did.
On Friday our "Small Plates" arrived suspiciously quickly. The toppings for the spicy chicken nachos had been held under a salamander or microwaved to order: The chicken, guacamole, black beans and cheese (but not, thank God, the sour cream) were all slightly above room temperature. It was a shame, because the tortilla chips were house-made or passably so, thin, crisp and warm, and the slices of fresh raw jalapeño offered a strong kick. I couldn't accuse the kitchen of microwaving the pot stickers, because I wasn't sure they'd been cooked at all. The won ton wrappers showed no marks of having been fried, and if they'd been steamed, it had been with the ambient heat from a clothes iron. A bite into the unpleasantly chewy wrapper revealed an owl pellet of flavorless ground... something.
We'd also ordered the calamari, which came to the table in paper wrapped around the inside of a black wrought-iron cone. Attached to the side of the cone was a little slot the perfect size to hold, say, a tea light. Sad to say, it was filled with a small dish of my archnemesis, that signal flare of all that's uninspired in American food consumption: cocktail sauce. At any rate, it was a cool presentation, and the lightly breaded calamari were crisp on the outside, as advertised, and tender within. In fact, whether by trial and error in its corporate kitchen or by the happy accident of it being a new restaurant with fresh oil in a clean fryer, Bar Louie's fried foods were generally awesome. The onion rings were especially indulgent, the thick slices of sweet onion sinfully greasy without being soggy.
Among the "Large Plates," there were only a few standouts. Fish tacos featured a delicious salsa made with chunks of fresh mango. I was especially impressed by the shrimp rosé pasta. The shrimp were small but plump and perfectly cooked, and the cream sauce was a very delicate balance between earthy mushrooms and light, sweet rosé. (The menu lists this as "Chicken Rosé Pasta," but you can substitute shrimp for $3, which I recommend.)
Oddly, the menu includes several Cajun dishes: "New Orleans Chicken Gumbo," jambalaya, po' boy sandwiches and several creations made with "blackened" chicken, shrimp and salmon. I skipped the jambalaya, but both the chicken gumbo and the blackened salmon were disappointing. The gumbo was loaded with okra and andouille sausage, but my cup contained one measly hunk o' chicken, and the overall flavor was basically cream of chicken soup. The salmon was a nice piece of fish, large and tender, but it was barely browned, let alone blackened, and the Cajun seasoning was too salty. The side dishes gloppy rice and black beans in a very thin broth were a travesty. Note to chain restaurants: If you're going to appropriate a cuisine, at least get the basics right.
Better to stick with more traditional bar-and-grill fare: burgers, wraps and sandwiches. The "Spicy Shrimp Po' Boy" sandwich wasn't spicy the "chipotle mayo" tasted an awful lot like Thousand Island dressing but it was tasty, with loads of fresh tomato, red onion and romaine lettuce in a crusty demibaguette. The "Louie Burger" I had for dinner on Friday night was on the thin side I should have ordered it medium-rare instead of medium but it was still juicy, and its topping of giardiniera sauce, a piquant mix of pickled peppers and other vegetables, was addictive.
Clearly, Bar Louie is a better bar than it is restaurant: On Friday I knew it was time to head home when two guys at a nearby table suddenly stood up and performed a choreographed dance to Lil Jon's "Get Low." Still, it serves food later into the night than most places, its prices are reasonable (the most expensive dish costs $14), and most of the ingredients are impeccably fresh.
Besides, it certainly has electricity. And sometimes that's enough.