Restaurant Reviews

Bad-News Bistro

Is it just me, or do some waiters take the cake? Along with a male colleague, I had lunch at Bistro 224 recently and, a day later, lunched there again -- this time with a woman friend. The waiter looked reproving. "I see," he said, arching an eyebrow. "You play both sides of the fence."

Of all the damn cheek! I should have corrected him, I suppose. But I'm a wimp in these situations. And kindness played a role as well. The man bore all the hallmarks of the highly strung.

There then followed what future generations will doubtless refer to as the Menu Incident. Mine had something unpleasant sticking to it. I can't be any more precise. To determine the exact nature of this thing would have required a closer look. And something told me not to bother. The waiter, though, could have cared less. "I'm going to burn this menu right now," he said, affecting horror. "We mustn't let it contaminate the others."

But even without that waiter, eating at Bistro 224 would be perplexing. A strange tentativeness pervades the place. I've eaten here three times now and ... I don't want to seem unkind, so let me put it like this: It's highly unlikely you'll ever have to wait for a table. The first time I visited, I shared the place with four people, the second time with seven and the third time ... oh, dear. This does sound bad. The third time I shared it with no one. No, that should be qualified. There was one other person -- a very attractive woman playing the multiple roles of waitress, host and bar person. At least, that's all she admitted to. For all I know, she might also do the cooking. (All my visits occurred at lunchtime, I should point out. Evenings, I'm told, are a little busier.)

There's a noticeable lack of ceremony at Bistro 224. When you enter, for example, don't be surprised if no one pays you the slightest heed. And when a waiter does cast a glance in your direction, he's apt to glance away just as quickly. Maybe they think you just popped in for a quick look. But it is aggravating. I wouldn't recommend coming here if you're dying of hunger. If you do, bring an undertaker.

Bistro 224's following is small at the moment. Located on lower Westheimer -- its neighbors include an adult bookstore, a run-down laundromat and a shop selling crystals -- the bistro, as well as the dwindling pocket of funk of which it's part, looks sadly beleaguered. How long can it survive the gentrification scourge? How long before townhouses modeled on the forms of Georgian England despoil this part of Montrose as they have so many others?

The menu is anachronistic, also. Like Pachelbel's "Canon" issuing endlessly from a public-address system, the plates at Bistro 224 are so elaborate, they smack of another time and place. A time when rich sauces enjoyed favor and people fell to their knees and beat their breasts at the mention of butter. (How distant it all seems! Can it only be 15 years ago?) And when these plates aren't busy being ornate, they're often busy being fussy. The gravlax ($5.95) -- salmon cured in salt and sugar -- is a case in point. The gravlax itself is delicious. But is it necessary that it arrive with all those dependents? There are capers on this plate, and chopped egg yolks, and tartar sauce, and bruschetta, and chopped red onion, and a large wedge of lemon and God knows what else. It's all quite bewildering. You could try them all, I suppose. But who has the time? And besides, isn't it the job of the kitchen to make these decisions? A diner doesn't want this much latitude. Nor does he want this much bounty. Bistro 224 would do well to scale back.

Other dishes are hit and miss. Among the appetizers, I enjoyed the hearts of palm salad ($5.95), described on the menu as "hears of palm." With pine nuts, red onion and a nicely balanced vinaigrette, it's oddly subtle for a kitchen that shows off every chance it gets. But I can't recommend either the crab cake ($6.95) or the snails ($5.95). The latter -- a mere six of them, languishing in butter so hot it came to the table spitting furiously -- looked and tasted like leather buttons. And the crab cake was little better. The menu promised three sauces. I discerned only one -- a nasty, greasy thing that nearly turned my stomach.

The entrees, overall, are a better bet. The tournedos of beef ($11.95) had the texture of butter and came with a first-rate bearnaise sauce. The pork tenderloin ($10.95) was good as well. But why burden it with all that plum sauce? Gazing at it, I imagined for a moment that I was Moses about to part the Red Sea.

Snapper excelsior ($18.95) was much more successful. I chose it in hopes of hearing heavenly voices -- and didn't. But I'm not complaining. The pleasures it provided, though more worldly than spiritual, were not to be despised: succulent snapper, terrific shrimp, great artichokes and lots of naughty little mushrooms.

Linguine with mussels ($17.95) proved a major disappointment. The mussels arrived with their shells gaping, putting me in mind of pelicans, their heads back and their mouths ajar, about to devour a very large fish. My companion didn't like the dish at all. It lacked snap, she said. And I agreed -- not out of gallantry, but because I'm a dreadful snob where mussels are concerned. In the end, we had the waiter bring us all the limes and Tabasco he could lay his hands on and, thus equipped, we applied ourselves to transforming this benighted dish, looking the while like two children with their very first chemistry set.

The chef tends to overdo the al dente thing. The pork came with haricots verts cooked so minimally, they'd barely been heated through. These green beans were more than firm to the teeth. They'd have been firm to a pair of pliers.

The entrees, by the way, come with massive knives. From the Freddy Krueger collection, by the looks of them. Mine scared the daylights out of me. Good God, I thought. What can they want me to do with it? Perform an autopsy?

Bistro 224, 224 Westheimer, 521-7888.