Washington Avenue Bistro is maddeningly erratic, swooping from sublime to substandard. It's a culinary version of Russian roulette: Win, and you'll be relieved -- and have a pleasing, memorable evening. Lose, and you'll be deeply disappointed.
Inconsistencies seem to plague every aspect of the restaurant's operation. Food? Chef Marco Klein's lobster bisque is breathtakingly good. I couldn't stop myself from wiping up the remains with a breadcrust. And yet the ahi tuna with baby-spinach salad, which failed to deliver on its promise, had so little taste that the only evidence I ate it lies in my notes. Service? The bisque arrived without a spoon, I waited fifteen minutes for bread and, one evening, the waitress couldn't even tell me at what time the restaurant opened. Sure, each member of the waitstaff was unflaggingly friendly and pleasant and seemed generally interested in my happiness as a diner, but still ...
Wine? On one visit, my glass of zinfandel -- part of a list that includes 50 choices -- was served warm, certainly above room temperature (red wine should be served between 50 and 65 degrees). On another visit, however, my cabernet sauvignon was served at the appropriate temperature.
The ornate restaurant, tucked in the basement of the Renaissance St. Louis Suites Hotel, emanates a sense of restrained opulence. Lush red leather booths are partitioned off with thick curtains, and the silverware sits pleasantly heavy in the hand. The menu has a few simple offerings (a hamburger, a portobello sandwich) in a nod to hotel guests looking for a quick meal, but most of the food is more decadent.
The aforementioned bisque, served with a phyllo-dough cheese straw, was wonderful. The server arrived and placed in front of me a bowl littered with generous chunks of lobster, then covered it at the table with the bisque. Each spoonful contained a piece of lobster, light on my tongue; its taste lingered, leaving me hesitant to ruin the moment by eating anything else. Service issues, however, were evident: The curved booth prevented the waitress from being able to reach across the table to ladle the soup. She had to kneel awkwardly on a bench -- where my dining companion had been seated only moments before -- to finish plating the dish. Then, after a few long minutes, she returned with a spoon; after a few minutes more she delivered the missing cheese straw (I wish she had kept it -- there was too much paprika covering the Parmesan-and-phyllo creation, and it left an unpleasant and pungent aftertaste).
The crab cake, served with a cilantro rémoulade, was heavily breaded, but the breading and the crab-rich inside were so sublime that the flaw was rendered moot. Although the Greek salad was fresh and solid, the aforementioned ahi tuna was in reality served with mixed baby greens, not baby spinach -- and lacked any hint of personality. The calamari was served with barbecue sauce; although Klein says he prefers barbecue sauce at home and thinks it's nice change of pace, I was wishing for some good old Heinz and horseradish. The mussels were fresh, but the broth needed more garlic; it was good, but not bread-dippingly so.
The inconsistencies continued with the entrées. Klein's coriander-encrusted rack of lamb was so good that I had the remains boxed up to bring home, which I rarely do. The meat was cooked perfectly to order, and each piece, dipped in the succulent, salty jus, was a delight. At $23.95, the lamb is the priciest entrée on the menu but worth the money as a decadent treat. At the lower end of the price scale, the braised St. Louis short ribs ($12.50), slathered in a slightly spicy molasses barbecue sauce, were terrifically tender. The sauce provided heat to the meat, and as a result the ribs blossomed with flavor without burning, leaving a happy aftertaste. The ribs are served with garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed mustard greens. The night I tasted the ribs, the greens were more bitter than bittersweet, and the potatoes were wholly lacking in garlic flavor (but creamy and delicious nonetheless).
The Wiener schnitzel, an Austrian dish that's popular in Germany, was boring. This was not the Wiener schnitzel of my youth. I grew up in a town with a large German population, and Wiener schnitzel was a staple of most of the "nice" restaurants in town. I remember tender browned, breaded veal scallops, usually served with a small wedge of lemon. Veal is prized most for its tenderness. As for its taste, however, think of veal as an empty vessel waiting to be filled with the delectable and delicate. The potato pancakes and marinated red cabbage that shared the plate were as delightful as the Wiener schnitzel was dull. The pancakes were slightly soggy from the cabbage piled on top, but the combination was nevertheless delicious. Klein marinates the red cabbage for at least a day, adding sugar, vinegar, cloves, red wine and bay leaves.
The cinnamon-apple pork tenderloin, one of Klein's favorite dishes, is a classic pairing. The sweet cinnamon applesauce complements the savory tenderloin, though some of the meat was a little overcooked and dry. My guest ordered the maple-glazed salmon medium-well, which rendered the fish dry in my mouth, but medium-well will do that. Klein's elegant maple sauce is drizzled over the plate.
For those who plan on ordering dessert, only the crème brûlée and the Hot Chocolate Volcano are made on-site (the restaurant has no pastry chef), but both are fabulous. The crème brûlée's crust had no hint of burnt sugar, and a small, beautiful strawberry was sliced and fanned on the top. The Hot Chocolate Volcano is in a league of its own, rich and luscious. A fluted chocolate cake serves as the volcano, with liquid dark chocolate as the lava. The dish is eminently satisfying, the kind of dessert that makes you close your eyes and let out a low, almost sexual moan after each bite. Just when you think you can't take any more richness, a cool, cleansing chaser of vanilla ice cream is the perfect excuse to take another taste of chocolate, which warrants a bit more ice cream, and so on.
At its best, Washington Avenue Bistro is the kind of restaurant you tell your friends about. Unfortunately, the Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect may leave you unsure as to what you might tell them. If you work downtown and are looking for a swank place to eat, the Bistro's probably worth the risk. But it's definitely a gamble. You might get a napkin that has lipstick on it, wine poured from ten inches above the glass or bitter spinach -- or you might get a meal that is pure pleasure. Are you feeling lucky?