Now, none of this would really matter if Bistro R were simply a midrange restaurant, with prices in the low teens. Instead, with entrees in the $25-$30 range, the prices are comparable to, say, The Berkeley Hotel, and let's be frank here those boys downtown really do offer a lot more than fake flowers and white linens.
As you sit pondering the strange white fabric draped from the ceiling in the bar area and admire the dark wood wine rack flanking the bar (even as you wonder why in the world a frosted deli case fronts the kitchen), the mystery of how such a wildly ambitious menu ended up in a place like this remains unanswered. The other diners older, sedate seem unperturbed by this aesthetic conundrum and tuck into their meals quietly but with concentration. There's a decent wine list, and the service is informed and friendly. It's as professional as Lemaire, despite its casual, haphazard setting.
Appetizers that sound adventurous (and a little scary), like Sika venison carpaccio (Sika is a Japanese elk bred in Texas), scatter the menu. The venison is indeed lovely. Shaved almost to translucency, it has a pungent, meaty tang and is surrounded by fragrant, mustardy truffle oil accented by salty capers. Although your walk on the wild side can include an antelope-and-wild-boar-stew special, which may be a little too weighty as a first course, less challenging choices, like the Chesapeake casserole, abound. Traditional and sherry-heavy, laden with cream, oysters, shrimp and crabmeat, it too is no featherweight starter and cries out for sturdy bread with which to scoop it up.
The bread provided light and fluffy stuff straight from the grocery store, with barely melted slices of chewy Parmesan is a real disappointment (call Billy Bread for help now, Chef Carragher), despite the florets of herbed butter that accompany each loaf. The Hudson Valley duck breast is less than successful as well, with limp instead of crackly skin and a toughness the sweet fig and Madeira reduction fails to disguise.
The tiny, vividly pigmented green beans are perfectly cooked, however, and the unusual mashed sweet potato/red potato side is intriguingly laced with bursts of cilantro. Although the Australian filet mignon is predictably topped with lump crabmeat and a drizzle of sharp lemon-laced butter sauce, the hunk of meat itself is huge, oozing meaty juices and cooked to medium-rare perfection. All of the entrees come with a salad as well, a real bonus in this day of à la carte everything.
Dessert is less than stellar. Although the Grand Marnier crème brûlée is coarse and its caramelized crust is practically nonexistent, it's pleasant. The bananas Foster bread pudding is slightly better but suffers in comparison to Rowland's exhilarating re-imagination of the same dish.
Lunch fares better, although it would be nice to have those tablecloths back on to banish the pizza-joint feel of the place. The menu is extensive, and the crab cake sandwich is enormous, its lumps of back fin subtly enhanced by an optional horseradish mayonnaise. The rare roast beef and melted cheddar on a crispy kaiser roll is well-augmented by caramelized onions, but the sides are dull, with a boring, country club pasta salad and a potato salad ruined with chunks of sweet pickle.
Bistro R is a grand idea -- in the abstract but it gets bogged down in the details that really matter to diners. And despite the exotic chances it takes, it can't quite live up to the potential its menu suggests. S
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2: 30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5:30-9:30 p.m.;
Friday-Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m.