If looking for a quiet place for a business lunch, forget the Inner Loop. Looking for a last minute reservation for six, we struck gold at Bistro Alex, the new concept inside Hotel Sorella from Brennan's Alex Brennan-Martin.
An enormous distressed wood feature runs overhead and down the exterior wall, mercifully blocking what would otherwise be a painfully bright afternoon sun and adding woodsy charm to the otherwise modern establishment.
Most of the menu edges towards the Brennan's genre of refined Texas-Creole, but the lunch menu varies between several small-dish genres: a quartet of flatbreads, salads, soups, and entrees are on offer along with charcuterie and fromagerie. But if the menu was wide, it was also shallow. With the kitchen out of salmon, there were no seafood entrees available.
For more organized lunch dining, the 2.5 course business lunch for $18 gave a nice, if limited, orderly selection of what's on offer.
We started with the curried coconut shrimp flatbread, which was deliciously sweet and crispy, though out of place on a menu with no other spicy south Asian flavors.
No matter. The soups were a mixed bag: one diner (on the business lunch plan) raved about the turtle soup, while two of us found it too heavy on acid until we cut it with a pinch of sugar from the tea caddy. The blue crab and sweet corn bisque wasn't bad, but tasted almost overwhelmingly of cornmeal — you could almost feel the graininess on your tongue — with little hint of crab.
When it comes to service, the Bistro has had enough time to settle in, and there were honestly far too many hiccups for the level of dining experience Bistro Alex aims for. After quite-lengthy waits for entrees, the dishes were carried out of the kitchen and placed next to the table, where, instead of being served immediately, they waited while the server rounded up help to either grab table necessities or to find people to serve them out at once.
We stared at them like stray dogs looking in the window of a butcher shop.
This only advances my previously existing theory: that when CityCentre opened, early bird Eddie V's scooped up the best servers with high-end experience, and service there is as a result uniformly outstanding. Restaurants opening afterwards — including Straits and Bistro Alex — had a less experienced pool to choose from, and have suffered from it on the service side of things.
I could be wrong though, surely intensive training could supplant a lack of experience. It's just a theory.
Once the entrees arrived on the table, however, things brightened up tremendously. The steak frites plate boasted a beautiful piece of hangar steak, cooked perfectly and flavored with a nice chimichurri sauce. It was nothing Michael Cordúa and Robert Del Grande haven't been doing for years, but it was tasty. The truffled frites were slightly less successful, for the sole reason that the truffle oil, which did give the fries a great flavor, also made them soggy. Soggy frites are never a winner.
The crispy fried catfish chopped salad was a highlight, and the bartlett pear salad fared no worse. The barbecue shrimp shortcake was tiny in portion (when they say small plates, they mean it), but the shrimp were tender, the barbecue sauce glazed on just enough to be rich without making a mess, and when the components were portioned together, the ingredients really sang.
Desserts were good without being overly memorable, with a just-rich-enough demi Swiss chalet chocolate cake that satisfied, a light and sweet berry tart and white chocolate bread budding straight out of the Brennan's playbook. Not to thumb my nose at the bread pudding, but I couldn't help wishing Bistro Alex had imported the Bananas Foster instead.
Overall it seems like Bistro Alex has all the building blocks in place to be a destination for dining on the West side, if they could only get all their cylinders firing at once. I'm not sure they are there yet, but the promise is far too great to write them off.