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Ups and Downs 

Bistro 44 has pluses, but service and seasoning problems need fixing

At the edge of Bistro 44's good-sized parking lot stands a sign promoting "great food and great service." Yet after two dinner visits, it's hard to decide if Bistro 44 lives up to the sign's promise.

The place has a main dining room, a bar room and a patio. In spite of some interesting (and slightly disturbing) art work, the décor was pretty lackluster, with beige walls, heavy curtains, plain-black tables crowded together and overly bright lighting.

During our first visit, the service was full of missteps, and the food was hit and miss. Our waiter arrived, took our order and, promising to return with water and rosemary focaccia, sped away. We waited a while, which gave us time to notice that other tables had received the bread minutes after being seated. Ours eventually arrived along with our cocktails: John had a martini ($7.75), and I had a glass of fume blanc ($7.50). The place was jumping, so we cut the server some slack.

I can't be quite as nonchalant regarding my appetizer. John ordered the mini-corn dogs ($7.50), and I ordered the steamed clams ($11). The dogs were an artfully presented success: About a dozen slices of Hebrew National franks had been dipped in a perfectly light cornmeal batter, and then fried. The spiciness of the dogs and the mellow sweetness of the coating worked well together. The two dips--a honey mustard and a roasted tomato ketchup--were a plus.

But my clams were not clams at all: I was served the crab cakes. The server apologized and, with a little laugh, mentioned that he thought I had said crab cakes. OK, everyone makes mistakes ... but as we waited for my clams, we noticed that other servers were telling the guests about the evening's specials. We'd never been told about them.

Eventually, the clams arrived. The ale broth overpowered the sweetness of the clams (white wine might have been a better way to go), and because of the delay, our entrées arrived before we'd finished the clams.

John had ordered the braised short ribs ($18). They were served with the house-specialty sides: buttermilk chive mashed potatoes and spaghetti squash. The short ribs were tender and savory, although there should've been a tad more of the braising juices for the potatoes, which were pretty bland. The squash, although a neat change, was unnecessary. (These two sides are served with at least five of the entrées.)

I ordered the pan-seared ahi tuna ($22.50). Accompaniments were a cherry tomato fennel salad and lemon thyme orzo. A red pepper coulis and an olive tapenade were drawn across the plate. The tuna was done perfectly, and both the coulis and tapenade proved to be nice additions. The tomato salad, though, suffered from a lack of seasoning, and in the orzo, you couldn't taste the lemon or the thyme.

After the plates were cleared, two other entrées were brought to the table. More apologies followed; the right table eventually got their food, and we got a good laugh.

We split the caramel crème brlée for dessert ($6). While it wasn't the best I've had, it held its own.

Then the bill arrived. I noticed that the server had taken the clams off of the bill as amends for his error--but he had charged us for the crab cakes! When I asked him about it, he proudly pointed out that he hadn't charged us for the clams. It took a while for him to get my drift. Again, he apologized, but this was the fourth error of the evening.

The service on our second visit was thoughtful, organized, sincere and professional. Admittedly, the restaurant was not nearly as busy, but I doubt that was the reason for the difference.

After we'd heard the specials, we each ordered a glass of wine: pinot grigio for John ($6) and, for me, a pinot noir ($7.50). For appetizers, we started with the sliders for John ($8.50) and the infamous crab cakes ($12.50) for me. For entrées, John ordered the seven-cheese penne pasta ($13.50). I had the Bistro 44 steak diane ($23.50).

The three sliders on buttery buns were topped with red onion, tomato and lettuce, served with crispy french fries--the dish could have been a meal itself. The crab cakes were also quite good, although the slaw that came along with them was merely chopped cabbage in a very light dressing.

John's penne was rich and creamy, and it had bits of ham and asparagus tips tossed in. It was then baked with a bread-crumb topping. The flavors mingled nicely, but this dish was pretty ordinary.

Steak diane is often flambéed tableside. There were no such theatrics here (which is probably a good thing). The dish consisted of several beef tenderloin medallions cooked in a rich brandy sauce with mushrooms and whole-grain mustard. The meat was tender, and the sauce was tasty, but it lacked any trace of mustard. Those house mashed potatoes and spaghetti squash were on the side.

For dessert, we split the strawberry tart ($6). This was a perfect ending to the meal. The crust was filled with a creamy custard-like filling and topped with plenty of fresh strawberries. Enjoyable!

With some serious tweaking, Bistro 44 has the potential of being a winner. The kitchen should get over its shyness with seasoning, and the dining room should be painted in warmer colors and offer better lighting. Finally, a commitment to quality service is essential. I don't think that's asking too much.

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