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.

DFD can still work, and still be highly entertaining, with a little patience. For the best success, I'd suggest bringing a large group of, say, six, to share and taste virtually everything on Barmouche's menu. That way, when a dish doesn't work, we can wrinkle our noses, then move on to something better without feeling ripped off.

It's entirely appropriate that, at one evening's dinner, my group is just as messed up as the restaurant. One guest shows up late, and promptly catapults over the step to our raised seating area. Our server greets us, then disappears for 15 minutes before coming back for our wine order. As soon as the beverage is delivered, another one of my guests tips the glass onto his white shirt, then locks himself in the rest room for 10 minutes trying to wash the red stain out. Halfway through the meal, I nearly drop a whole plate of fish onto the floor. We have to ask repeatedly for fresh silverware and for new personal plates between courses. When dessert arrives, one of my guests promptly spills an entire lemon custard flat into his lap.

Appetizers showcase how good Barmouche can be. I scramble to get my fair share of a dynamite tomato-mozzarella salad, an impressive layering of creamy-firm homemade cheese and fruit that's much juicer and flavorful than what I can find in my supermarket. My mother (what's dysfunctional dining without Mom?) marvels over the crab cakes, because they're made with tons of actual seafood and only a bit of cracker crumbs, two moist lumps atop warm spinach and slicked with whole grain mustard sauce. Laitue salad (French for lettuce) brings organic butter lettuce with zingy Roquefort-walnut dressing topped with real walnuts. And the only thing that could make a classic caesar better than this one would be the addition of anchovies; the dressing is first-rate and it's capped with a thin, crisp Parmesan cracker.

I'd pass on the bruschetta, though, an ordinary attempt of diced tomato, onion and basil with too much balsamic on crusty crostini. Shrimp cocktail gets quickly forgotten, too, just basic seafood in a martini glass dunked with so-so cocktail sauce.

Entrees are the most schizo. With some things, like veal meatloaf, baked with shiitake mushroom gravy and a potato scallion cake, Tarbell's talents shine through. The Southern-style fried chicken is soul-satisfying, with country gravy and a Cheddar biscuit. My group fights over one evening's special, a superb herb-crusted California sea bass, drizzled in lemon thyme sauce alongside steamed broccoli and charred tomato rice pilaf. The fish is expertly cooked, firm and juicy, in a crunchy light coating.

Other dishes have us wondering, where have all the flavors gone? A massive casserole of sausage lasagna tastes like it was frozen, wet and flat. It's creamy with lots of cheese and packed with meat, but it's more appealing on the eyes than the tongue. Mom thinks there's something wrong with her palate, after exclaiming over the visual beauty of a flat iron steak. It shows up looking absolutely decadent, sliced in rich-colored ruby red. But Mom's right, it does taste of nothing, splayed across some nice grilled asparagus and a wad of au gratin potatoes.

Sides seesaw, as well. Blue Lake green beans are a winner, exquisitely buttery and crisp. But then things fall apart with macaroni and cheese, an overly aggressive recipe of salt and aged Vermont Cheddar for a result that's tart, quite sharp and dry under baked blanket of breadcrumbs (on another visit, the mac is marvelous, so go figure).

I wonder if we could do DFD with just desserts, since there's never a loser in this group. They're all homemade, with clever confections like ice cream sandwiches, and an old-fashioned banana split. Sweet orange custard has us licking our spoons, dolloped in a thin lemon tuile with whipped cream (our server takes pity on our clumsiness and brings us another after we deposit it on the carpet). I love a hot strawberry-rhubarb cobbler served in a casserole with vanilla ice cream, coffee cake topping. And chocolate banana bread pudding, like a warm fudge cake topped with sliced bananas, is so compelling I convince the server to break his leftovers rule.

I have to admit that I appreciate the irony -- though I'm sure Tarbell won't -- that the eatery has introduced this "dysfunctional family dining" thing. This is the perfect example of Barmouche's unstable personality, in an all-you-can-eat format: Food is erratic, service can be surprising, and we're never sure if the night will be wonderful -- or woeful.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet