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A Simple Plan

A perfect summer offering: Gazpacho made from heirloom tomatoes.
Troy Fields

The waiter at Pic. was doing just fine, confidently reciting each of the specials in exquisite (some might say excruciating) detail. But somewhere near the home stretch, between praising the braising for the curried short ribs and trumpeting the plum compote upon which the Swedish meatballs would be served, his memory sagged and he stumbled.

A glazed look of not-quite-panic filled his face. "And...um...uh." Admitting defeat, he pulled out his notebook, checked the cheat sheet, then finished his arduous recitation.

Poor guy.

When chef-owner Scott Tycer abruptly closed up his haute-cuisine establishment Aries a few months ago, he said he wanted to replace it with something simpler. And yes, this new operation (at the same two-story Montrose site) is certainly simpler, relatively speaking. But don't come here thinking Pic. is short for "picnic" and expecting to find a menu of bologna sandwiches, tater salad and Kool-Aid. Simply being "simpler" than Aries still leaves an awful lot of room for culinary ambition and a soupcon of residual affectation. Just ask the waiter trying to remember all those specials with their overwrought details.

All things considered, Tycer -- who also operates Gravitas and Kraftsmen bakery -- has done an admirable job of downshifting, but diners will still find themselves in the gastronomic fast lane at Pic.

While it's true that an evening meal here can consist of a bowl of soup and a burger, most of the neo-American selections are more along the lines of a raw vegetable terrine with green olive vinaigrette followed by a three-cheese tortellini with sage butter and hazelnuts. Oh -- and that burger? It'll set you back $15. But it does come with "foraged mushrooms." Super-size that for you?

In its heyday, Aries had avid supporters who were understandably enamored with Tycer's meticulous, Frenchified fare. There were also those who, while acknowledging the excellence of the food, found Aries more than a tad too sniffy and smug. While most of that arrogance hasn't been "picked" up by the current regime -- Pic. staffers are attired in blue jeans and gray polo shirts -- the Aries-era attitude isn't entirely gone. Like the aroma of garlic, it has lingered.

On one visit, for instance, a hostess turned up the chill factor considerably when I announced I wished to be seated upstairs.

"Fortunately, we have a table open," she said, leading us up the narrow staircase. "But if you wish to sit upstairs, next time you must ask them to make a note of that on your reservation."

I informed her that I had done just that.

"Really?" She all but rolled her eyes with disbelief. "I saw no such note."

Of course, one snippy hostess does not a policy make. But there was the waiter at lunch who, upon delivering a first-class club sandwich with a side order of dreary oven-roasted potatoes, conceded, "We can get you mustard and ketchup -- if you want them. But we don't recommend it." Take that, all you condiment-swilling oafs.

Before I come off sounding too disapproving of Pic., I must say that the food, fussy though some of it may be, is generally impressive.

That tortellini, for example, is a real delight, with its blend of Parmesan, mascarpone and goat cheese in creamy harmony with the delicate pasta. A clever mushroom lasagna using spelt pasta manages to capture the tangy tomato-and-cheese essence of that Italian standard without the bulky weight usually associated with it. One waiter-stumping special, a zesty salad of arugula and orange segments garnished with ribbons of choice fennel-infused salami (finocchio), makes for an odd but thoroughly satisfying combination. Ditto a crunchy starter course of apple shavings and bean sprouts dressed in a coriander-spiked vinaigrette.

The Pic. Web site sports four colorful menu blocks corresponding to each of the seasons, suggesting Chef Tycer will be customizing his bill of fare to suit the time of the year. Indeed, the present printed menu features a sunny splash of yellow at the top emblazoned with "Summer." That's a promising concept, and it certainly pays off when the results are something like a bright gazpacho made from heirloom tomatoes with crisp snippets of yellow bell pepper and cucumbers. It's a perfect summer offering.

Then again, some other selections on this Summer menu don't seem to be as well, um, seasoned. Take that appetizer of baked gnocchi with bacon and savoy cabbage. Would you like to follow that with an entre of smoked pork loin with sweet peppers and mashed potatoes? Whew. That's good eating, but hardly the lightest of meals. If that's summer fare, what can we expect in winter -- ox haunch and groat cakes?

While some of the menu decisions are peculiar, on my visits to Pic., the kitchen went seriously astray on only a couple of offerings. A beautiful piece of grilled snapper turned into bouillabaisse-y mush when the bed of fried cauliflower it was served on quickly dissolved into the broth that had, inexplicably, been poured into the dish. That lagoon effect made for an elegant presentation, yet it seriously compromised the food.

Similarly, style wins out over substance in a deceptively named "sundae" dessert. For me, a sundae means ice cream with some sort of topping. At Pic., it means whipped cream covering meringue cookies served over a block of limoncello-flavored ice that's too dense to be eaten with a spoon. Maybe a cold-chisel should be supplied? And the whole concoction is presented in a too-cute-for-words mason jar. The sundae shouldn't put you off desserts here, though. There is an absolutely killer rendition of crepes filled with white chocolate, as well as a delectable cake that makes great use of that decadently rich Valrhona French chocolate.

In the transformation of Aries into Pic., there seems to have been no major architectural or interior design changes. Just some stylish tweaking. This remodeled residence on Montrose Boulevard still offers two clean, airy dining rooms, downstairs and up, with the latter slightly more comfortable, if only because it's somewhat less noisy. But there's no getting around the fact that this is a relatively small establishment and, when the weather doesn't permit outdoor seating on the appealing balcony and front patio, table space inside is at a premium. So far, most of those tables are filled weeknights and it's reservations-only on weekends. Tip: Try lunch, when nearly three quarters of the evening menu is available, and at lower prices.

In line with the "keep it simple" mantra, Pic. has, in effect, done away with its wine list. Oh, there's still wine being served -- but there is no real system, only a seemingly random printout on the back of the one-sheet menu. That approach might be workable for a dozen modest bottles. However, this is a fairly serious assortment, with about 90 selections, including a dozen in the $100 range. Presenting them in an apparent jumble like this (even if that's some sort of ranking by light to heavy) helps no one. "Simple" is not a synonym for lackadaisical.

Finally, we come to the matter of that intriguing name, Pic. Early reports that it was the French word for "peak," while believable, were in error. As the period indicates, it's an abbreviation. According to Tycer's wife, Pic. is short for "picture," which refers to food-industry jargon for the next group of orders a kitchen is going to prepare. See? she said. It's symbolic. I'm not sure I understand that, but like the restaurant itself, it piques my interest.


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