I've been waiting breathlessly for the opening of Monica Pope and Andrea Lazar's "baby bistro," the 43 Brasserie, for what seems like an eternity well, at least since the 1990s. Just think: Pope and Lazar planned to pluck some of the tastiest concepts on the cafe market -- casual counter service, all-hours dining, a Goode Co.-like enclave of good eats -- and stir them up with some of the most serious kitchen savvy in town. Visions of a sort of bargain-basement Boulevard Bistrot danced through my head; I could almost taste the buttery scones, herb-fragrant tisanes, good cheeses and chocolates and coffees.
So when the time finally came to visit 43 Brasserie, open since the first week of February, I gathered up my most serious foodie friends. "This is it," I promised them over the phone. "This is the big time, we're going to bistro heaven." Need I say I had no trouble getting volunteers for this gig?
The remodeled house, two doors up Montrose from Pope and Lazar's first bistro, was a revelation. It was filled with golden light from big, gorgeous windows all around, and shaded in front by an imposing live oak, neatly trimmed of sucker branches, I noticed. There are two -- count 'em, two -- wonderful outdoor dining decks, one upstairs and one down. Inside, the color scheme is bold and beautiful, in hues of juicy terra-cotta, lime green and lemon yellow, shot through with a brilliant blue counter.
We eagerly yanked the paper menus from the hands of the amused cashier, hollering "Dibs!" on one food item after another. There were so many goodies to choose from, it was just as I'd imagined. We managed to divvy up the most tempting treats fairly, then settled in to wait, watching our pager like hawks.
So imagine my astonishment when the first dish was, well, inedible.
This was the Proven¸al garlic soup ($3.75), described as "a rich herb broth with spicy olive oil and tons of garlic." My friend who had ordered it had the strangest look on his face, but the rest of us eagerly dipped in our spoons. It tasted precisely like raw flour, hot water and tons of garlic. A moment of appalled silence settled over the table.
"Oh, well," sighed the resident optimist of our formerly merry band. "This must be a mistake, some kind of glitch."
"So where's the olive oil?" snarled the less charitable one.
We turned our attention to the Rustic Pâté ($6.50). This was a loose pile of crumbled ground pork, pale white against a green lettuce leaf. It was difficult to round up enough of the roly-poly crumbs to balance on a slice of baguette, and it was impossible to spread or mash them. Then we realized it wasn't worth the effort. The pork was absolutely bland, more like a starter ingredient than a finished product. There was a side dollop of pale yellow Chinese-style mustard, sinus-searingly strong, that we could have used to moisten the pork, but why bother? For flavor we fought over the single wizened cornichon and three dry kalamata olives. Suddenly $6.50 seemed like a lot of money.
Cautiously we examined our sandwiches and pasta. Mine was the asparagus, prosciutto and herbed goat cheese number ($6). God, that prosciutto was good, tender and salty, but both paper-thin shreds together weren't enough to save the day. Blindfolded, I'd have been hard-pressed to distinguish that goat cheese from Philly cream cheese, so faint was its flavor, even with the occasional tiny snippet of chives. The focaccia-style bread was white, dry and devoid of those little frills I've foolishly come to expect, like a brushing of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, or even a twig or two of rosemary.
Meanwhile, Mr. Already Disappointed was frowning down at his Croque Montrose ($8.75). I knew what he had expected from this dish, from the "hot-pressed sandwich" section of the menu: He thought he was getting a hot-pressed sandwich. You know, the kind that was dipped in egg batter and grilled in butter. He probably didn't mind that it wasn't pressed in one of those clever two-part molds, so that it came out shell-shaped. He most definitely did mind that the bread was stone dry, for starters, no egg, no butter, and that it wasn't pressed in the slightest, but served open-faced. On one side was a chicken breast coated in something herbaceous, so green yet so devoid of taste that it must have been pure parsley; on the other, a reasonable slice of grilled portobello mushroom. Both halves were doused in a béchamel sauce that bore an ominous resemblance to the floury garlic soup, now abandoned and cooling ignominiously in the center of the table.
"Where the hell's the olive oil?" he growled, eyes bulging slightly.
Across the table from me, Ms. Good Humor calmly twirled pasta around her fork. "I like peas," she said quietly. She'd ordered the spaghetti with olive oil, peas, prosciutto and spinach ($8.75). It was an enormous bowl of pasta, with a few more shreds of prosciutto than my sandwich and some token green flags of spinach, but -- lucky for her -- lots of peas. Hunks of Parmesan, and lots of peas. Cooking prosciutto is a tricky business; a wee bit of extra heat and it goes all tough, just like those stiff, darkened bits in her bowl. "No, really, I like peas," she said, looking a little defensive. "But I don't think there's any olive oil in here." Outraged guttural sounds issued from our gentlemen friend.
We had also agreed to split one of the six-inch personal pizzas, choosing the "Pissaladière" version ($6) made in true south-of-France style with anchovies and onions. The anchovies were great. The pizza crust, which looked promisingly light, flaky and tartlike around the rim, was completely sodden in the center.
So there we sat, depressed and still hungry. How could this be happening? we wondered aloud. The place was packed by this time, plenty of people dining upstairs and downstairs, inside and out, plenty more waiting patiently in line at the counter. Most of them had ordered salads, we noticed, which looked big and leafy and green and boring. We decided that rather than cut our losses and go get real fast food, we'd try ordering what we knew for a fact should be the house's strong suit: the pastries. And while we were at it, we'd try the interesting-sounding breakfast items, too; after all, a place that serves breakfast all day long can be a real urban gem.
Oh, dear, it was a mistake. The chocolate brioche, thickly slathered with unsweetened chocolate, hid a heart of rubbery, underdone dough. The blueberry cheesecake had a crust of crushed chocolate wafers that Mr. Grumpy swore was burned. The wild rice waffles ($4) would have been better had they been crisp, he accurately pointed out, especially as they were so fetchingly thin, but I liked the powdered sugar sprinkled over them. And the chocolate sandwich -- I mean, the chocolate hazelnut tartine ($3.75) -- reminded me exactly of something one of my stoned sorority sisters would have concocted on a marijuana-fueled pantry raid. It was -- and I will swear to this -- two pieces of dry toast spread with undersweet melted chocolate, liberally studded with plain, dry hazelnut halves. It wasn't good, it wasn't fun, and I wasn't in the right state of mind to eat it.
I once read a theater reviewer's piece in which the only word of praise was reserved for the Diamond matches used to light cigarettes during the performance. At the risk of similarly damning with faint praise, I will say that the drinks at 43 Brasserie are both strange and wonderful. We loved the lemon verbena tisane ($2.25), a beautiful glowing green liquid with a lovely flavor. We even liked the pink grapefruit tonic ($3.50) spiked with lemon, ginger and -- believe it or not -- onion juice. We just didn't like the food.
As for words of explanation, I have none. How could a chef and a restaurateur so skilled have fallen so far short of the mark? How could a surefire, fail-safe concept like this one fail? Well, perhaps it's not fair to say "fail" in the case of a restaurant bustling with customers. Until a dramatic kitchen coup takes place or a better word occurs to me, let's just say "disappoint."
43 Brasserie, 4315 Montrose Boulevard, (713)874-0043.
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