Dining at Mandarin Bay is like watching a figure skater flub her program: Spectators can only look on with chagrin as she becomes what pro skaters call a butt magnet. In fact, our experiences at the new place on Washington Avenue reminded us of our visits to the Clark Street Grill when it opened. The restaurants prove that hip décor and showy presentation can't make up for poor performance, especially in the area of service.
Mandarin Bay is wrapped in a package as flashy as a skater's spangled costume. The restaurant is housed in the W.S. (William Stallings) Building, which is being converted to a hotel and loft apartments. The lobby is smartly tricked up with funky shapes and sleek lines, and the black-clad bar crowd overflows into the corridor. The maître d' ministers to her cell phone as a chick in go-go boots shows customers to their tables.
Most diners are seated in two main areas. The first is a curving platform against the far wall, separated from the room by a railing. The buildout has an amateurish, temporary look about it, like a backdrop constructed for a high-school play. If eating at table seems too conventional, customers can take their meals in bed. Near the bar is a cluster of five or six lairs, each strewn with pillows and shrouded on three sides with gauzy white scrims.
Our server apparently found it too onerous to mount the step up to the raised seating section. Instead, she stood below us, on the other side of the balustrade. She took our order from this position and even reached across the railing to hand us our dinners. We felt vaguely like prison inmates sequestered behind bars.
On the next visit, our Hanson-like waiter was so young, his voice was still changing. Both servers had an uncanny knack for hovering haplessly about without noticing an empty wine glass or a missing utensil -- they meant well, but they were not trained well. The couple next to us, though, didn't even have a server. After 15 or 20 minutes, they hailed an employee to complain that no one had approached their table. They were told that the waiter covering that station was busy, and a pell-mell succession of servers ensued.
Chef Anton Keller's menu is pan-Asian, with generous concessions to the American palate and to Western customs. In Asian cuisine, for example, meats are cut up before cooking or carved in the kitchen before serving so that they can be eaten with chopsticks. At Mandarin Bay, cuts of meat are generally left whole. The dishes are brought in courses, rather than set on the table all at once, according to Asian tradition.
Eastern influences define Keller's menu. He makes liberal use of soy sauce, onions and fresh ginger, the three aromatics that characterize Chinese regional cuisines. Japanese flavorings such as sesame oil, miso (fermented soybean paste) and wasabi (a horseradishlike root) add complexity to the food. Thai cuisine has a place, too, with such flavors as curry, galangal (a gingery, peppery spice) and lemon grass (citrusy stalks often used in fish cookery). Indonesian condiments, including tamarind and sambal oelek (a blend of chiles, brown sugar and salt), contribute subtle nuances.
The menu is a tantalizing read, but many of the dishes fizzle, like a skater with a flamboyantly choreographed program who pops his lutzes and triple axels. Keller knows how to conceive an inventive menu; now he needs to coach the line cooks who translate his ideas to the plate. Following the Japanese tradition, the food is beautifully arranged, earning high marks for artistic presentation. The dishes are garnished with carved turnips, deceptively delicate-looking Thai chiles, banana-flower petals, bamboo leaves and so on. But the restaurant relies too heavily on some visual devices, such as anchoring a few strands of deep-fried spaghetti upright in a mound of rice.
A series of bobbles suggests that the cooks need more practice time with the appetizer menu. A thick peanut sauce slicked with an orange film of grease accompanied satay -- shrimp and strips of beef and chicken threaded on wooden skewers. Slender spring-roll sticks were artfully upended in a glass and presented with a tangy-sweet citrus sauce for dipping. The filling inside the fried rolls tasted of crustaceans, but we couldn't make out clean flavors. Lobster-mango summer rolls, on the other hand, left a distinct impression of blandness. Mango slices appeared only as a garnish. The packages were made by folding chunks of lobster and vegetables inside lumpia wrappers (Philippine-style egg-roll skins). This mild combination calls for a sauce more piquant than the flat black-bean paste the restaurant serves with the rolls.
Some of Mandarin Bay's menu descriptions are overblown, promising "spicy tiger prawns" for what turn out to be medium-sized headless shrimp. (Prawns aren't a different species of shellfish -- they're just large heads-on shrimp.) Honey lamb chops with spicy-mustard vinaigrette consisted of small-eyed chops suffocated on the grill to a dull gray instead of the requested medium. Though the pan juices were faintly sweet, any spice or mustard was imperceptible. Two fish entrées score much better on technical merit. The first is a thick plank of sea bass blanketed with a tight honey-and-brown-sugar sauce reminiscent of maple syrup. The second, clumsily named "salmon with ginger creamy curry mussel sauce," has a gentle spiciness and a hint of coconut milk that underlines the richness of the fish.
Mandarin Bay has a sushi and sashimi bar, with fresh seafood arrayed in a chilled display box. Sashimi is sliced raw fish or other seafood served with such condiments as pickled ginger. We ordered squid, which was portioned into opaque white segments so big they became gummy before they yielded to the bite. The restaurant offers two kinds of sushi. Maki sushi is the familiar roll wrapped in nori (seaweed). It's filled with vinegared rice and vegetables, tofu, raw fish or other ingredients. Nigiri sushi is thinly sliced raw fish tinged with wasabi and layered with rice. We sampled smoked-salmon nigiri and were pleased with its quality and freshness.
The desserts at Mandarin Bay are Americanized but carefully integrated with the Asian menu. The confections highlight such exotic flavors as lemon grass and daikon (a kind of Japanese radish). Like the savory dishes, though, some of the sweets are ineptly prepared. Take the trio of crèmes brûlées -- ginger, vanilla and mango. The sugar sprinkled on their surfaces had been torched too zealously, leaving the custard warm and soupy.
We admire Mandarin Bay's owner, Max Taouil, for presenting such an offbeat concept to the skittish St. Louis restaurant market. But to merit the audience's trust, an unfamiliar concept must be well executed. Diners need to be given a reason to come back. After all, spectators don't buy tickets to attend warm-up sessions.