Cafe Reviews

Dysfunction Junction

Barmouche has always been unpredictable. The stylish bistro debuted with an offbeat menu in 1999, emphasizing French cafe cuisine along with a bit of English pub fare, and even some American diner food. There was elegant brandade de morue (a paste of salt cod and milk with potato gratin) up against workingman's bangers and mash (traditional British sausage and potatoes). And then home-kitchen-style chicken pot pie.

It was an odd mix for what looked to be a hip restaurant with a contemporary design that echoed noise more than relaxation. Sadly, food quality was all over the map, too, service stuttered, and diners were cautious about making the place a regular destination.

Today, Barmouche is a hot spot, and its owner, Mark Tarbell, is a media celebrity. He was nominated for a James Beard Award two years ago, for his sister restaurant, Tarbell's. Just try to get a seat at the high-energy bar during happy hour. Not so long ago, a buddy and I shut the joint down, with Governor Napolitano and a friend lurking at a high top table in the corner all the while (working hard to solve the state's gas crisis, I'm sure).

Barmouche is one of my all-time favorite spots for a sip or six of wine.

But are people coming for the food, or just to drink? I'm thinking it's the liquor. Because even with a new menu, and a funky new program called "Dysfunctional Family Dining," Barmouche still hasn't gotten its act together after all these years. When the food is good, it's very, very good. When it's bad, well, it's lousy.

Like its debut, the concept is as confused as ever. I sort of understand the new menu. Tarbell has kept some European favorites, but has added a greater emphasis on "Great American Comfort Food." On paper, it's a charming retro collection that's trendy now in restaurants all over the country: old-fashioned meatloaf, mini grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup, and Blue Plate specials like chicken fried steak, chicken and dumplings, or fish and chips.

Yet after a few visits, I'm still not sure exactly what the point of "dysfunctional" dining is. Wackiness is the goal, a Barmouche manager tells me. Whereas traditional family-style dining means big platters of a few dishes to be shared, DFD brings an avalanche of dishes drawn from different areas of the menu, served all at once in a heap that we pick and claw over with our friends. As the menu describes it, "Wanna have some fun? You sit, and we take charge -- ordering tons of small plates off the menu. You can guide us, of course . . . and when you throw in the white napkin, we'll stop serving."

On its surface, Dysfunctional Family Dining is a terrific idea. Essentially, DFD means an incredible value-packed pig-out on all the appetizers, entrees and desserts we can stuff down, for just $29 per person. The menu says "small plates." That's a lie. These are full-size portions. On one visit, my party of three ended up with six appetizers, three entrees, two sides and three desserts until we whimpered, "No more."

I calculated the value of what we ate -- at full menu prices, we walked away with $137 worth of food after paying just $87.

And we can get as much as we want, with one caveat. My server told of an instance when one pair of oinkers thought they had it over on the restaurant. They kept ordering expensive plates, only to take a bite or two and push the rest aside. Management declines to allow takeout leftovers, though, so the little game failed.

I would understand DFD better, I suppose, if it focused strictly on the new comfort menu. But everything on the menu is fair game, meaning a meal can include linguini alla rosa with broccoli, tomatoes and sautéed shrimp -- and then a BLT. We might get steamed mussels in white wine and shallot broth, and also biscuits and country gravy. Things could dress up with grilled salmon on cucumber and organic tomato, then dress down with meatball pizza.

I don't know how much of the general public is comfortable pairing an adventurous sweet corn and seafood chowder with hearty Guinness-braised beef short ribs. This might be a little too creative -- or, frankly, gross -- to catch on.

Regardless, I do know there's that Barmouche curse: It's unsettling to wonder if the kitchen is "on" that night -- in which case we might get an absolutely sumptuous Scotch beef, the chef's signature recipe, with lots of tender meat in velvety red wine gravy.

Or if it's off, and then we might well be faced with a ho-hum hunk of skillet-seared pork chop, under-seasoned and bland with succotash and peach glaze. Often, we get both ends of the spectrum at the same meal: an amazing croque monsieur (grilled ham and cheese sandwich) and a mushy, mediocre eggplant Parmesan.