Hoping for the best at the show known as Collin B's
Collin B's Bistro and Wine Room35th & Jefferson, Second Floor, 454-0004
Lunch: Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-2pm;
Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, 5-10pm;
Saturday brunch, 10am-2pm
As I'm sure my fellow restaurant critics (and most enthusiastic diners) would agree, expectation has a lot to do with how you define your initial dining experience at a restaurant. Food, after all, has become entertainment, and creating audience anticipation is a key ingredient in a successful "show." Chefs and restaurateurs are all too aware of this, of course. Many place print and radio ads, and commission glossy press kits and publicity campaigns promoting their "original recipes" with the gusto and verve of a charismatic used car salesman. And creating this buzz, more often than not, works. It lets people know there's a new show in town. It piques diners' curiosity and, ultimately, it fills the restaurant's tables.
I was eager to visit Collin B's Bistro and Wine Room from the first radio ad I heard touting the chef's signature cappellini crabcake. "How do you incorporate cappellini into a crabcake?" I'd ask myself as each spot ended, imagining bits of angel hair pasta mingled with crab in place of the standard breadcrumbs, or a tangle of the cappellini pan-fried into a dainty cake and topped with fresh claw meat and herbs. Then came the postcard in my mailbox exclaiming "Collin B's Bistro and Wine Room: Where the food looks so good you won't know whether to eat it or frame it!" Finally, there was the word around town that Michael McGovern, the supremely knowledgeable wine steward and affable general manager of Emilia's, had moved across town to manage Collin B's wine room. I was there!
My first step inside Collin B's kept my expectations soaring. The restaurant's interior is tasteful, inviting, and a little bit mysterious, with black banquettes and dark-stained bistro chairs abutting black-clothed tables, each one adorned with a bud vase of magnificent flowers (orange roses and magenta daisies on the night I was there). Jewel-toned paintings of gardens, seascapes, and lush fountains seem to jump off the cocoa-brown walls, and flickering candles and backlit window sheers keep the ambience rarified. Scarlet curtains set off two dramatic red alcoves adjoining the dining room, and etched glass doors give the spaces a modern touch.
Waitstaff at Collin B's are numerous, and they discreetly stand guard in the restaurant's dark retreats off the dining room. A busboy kept our water glasses brimming, another gentleman kept the bread plates full, and our waiter displayed the perfect combination of solicitude, familiarity with the menu and wine list, and gracious restraint. He recommended an excellent bottle of Australian Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir, and was off, returning within minutes with an amuse-bouche and a welcoming tasting-sized glass of crisp, white Frog's Leap. A trio of breads -- a jalapeño corn muffin, an onion roll, and a round slice of rye -- were set out simultaneously, and the show officially began, foreshadowing what was to follow.
Both the amuse-bouche and bread plate were created with an eye for distinguished appearances. The varied bread selection was a departure from the norm and the amuse-bouche, a miniature garlic crostini slathered with goat cheese and topped with a ripple of zucchini, was intended to welcome, impress, and whet the appetite. Beauty worth celebrating, however, runs more than skin deep. The restaurant's attention to detail ended with appearances, it seemed, with little of it paid to the quality of the ingredients in the pretty, pre-dinner dishes. The garlic on the little crostini had the unmistakable bite of the powdered or dehydrated variety, and the bread selection, while undeniably generous, was a little tired and dry. But we were enjoying the wine. The crostini's goat cheese was creamy, soft, and reassuring. And the restaurant's swanky atmosphere and attentive service felt promising.
The arrival of our appetizers buoyed the meal. Although my husband's selection sounded impossibly rich to me -- Prince Edward Island mussels stuffed with foie gras and tarragon custard and laced with truffle oil ($11.95) -- the combination worked and turned out to be the highlight of the meal. The dish seesawed between decadence and herbal refreshment, the plump, pate- and truffle oil-enhanced mollusks kept in balance by a surprisingly light, bright-tasting tarragon custard. My baby spinach salad topped with duck confit ($6.75) in sherry vinaigrette was far less racy, but still a solid choice, its bracingly tart vinaigrette the perfect mate for the earthy spinach and rustic confit.
Dinner took a downward turn with the arrival of the entrées, however. The prosciutto-wrapped Texas quail with truffled mushrooms and an aged Balsamic Misson fig essence ($14.95) fell far short of expectations. To begin with, there was no prosciutto in sight. (I'm a literal gal, and regard menu descriptions in a what-you-read-is-what-you-get way unless told of the evening's substitution by a waiter.) The salt-cured slab of country ham that curled thickly atop the tiny quail came as a bit of a surprise. I like country ham, but it was agonizingly out of place here, leeching rather than preserving the quail's moisture. The mushrooms tucked under the split, partially deboned bird were indeed dressed up with the unmistakable aroma of truffle oil. The mushrooms were delicious, as were the three little figs and the sweet balsamic reduction that framed the plate, but, to my liking, the quail was dry.
The entrée's ultimate shortcoming came in the form of "red rice." Although described by our waiter as a Himalayan red rice -- which it might well have been -- the dense mound that created the plate's foundation was so fiery that it overwhelmed the entire meal, even the potent truffle oil, and left us speculating that Paul Prudhomme's Cajun "dirty rice" seasoning may have found its way into Collin B's kitchen. An entrée of Valencia orange and ginger-cured pork tenderloin with an ancho-chili glaze ($16.95) suffered from the same "dirty rice" problem as the quail, making it impossible to discern even a hint of ginger or orange, and again, the meat was overcooked in my estimation. A dessert of berries and crème fraiche somewhat righted the meal, but we left Collin B's disappointed.
I had hopes that lunch at Collin B's the following week would alter my opinion of the restaurant. Like the dinner that had preceded it, we were warmly greeted when we arrived, and found the restaurant's daytime atmosphere as pleasant as it is by night, though the restaurant is more breezy-feeling and bright during the day. Again, flowers topped all the tables, and the wait team stood at attention in the dark corridor leading to the kitchen. Several tables were filled with business lunchers while pairs of senior "ladies who lunch" shared others. The stage was well set for a leisurely midday meal.
As at dinner, the bread service came first, but it, too, suffered from an unappetizing day-old texture, and the butter swirl that accompanied it had separated, oil pooling around the plate. Things started looking up with the arrival of the much-awaited cappellini crabcake appetizer with garlic spinach in a sun-dried tomato beurre blanc ($6.25). The dish was as big on looks as its promotional material had promised. It resembled a whimsical, upside-down, many-legged octopus marooned on a mound of green seaweed awash in a red-flecked foamy sea. It made us smile, and we dared each other to be the first to dig into the crabcake, which was contained within the "octopus' body" pocketed inside the twist of its fried cappellini "legs." The dish's flavor was fine, and the spinach served with it was a great touch, but the sun-dried tomato beurre blanc was anemic, revealing none of the characteristic punch of sun-dried tomato.
Another appetizer, the portobello and polenta fries with gorgonzola cream dip ($3.95), had sounded sensational to us -- the celebrated trio of polenta, mushrooms, and bleu cheese innovatively revisited. We asked about the preparation of these newfangled "fries," and our waiter explained that strips of polenta and portobello were tempura battered and fried, served with the bleu cheese as a dipping sauce. But yet again, Collin B's struck out on the execution. The tempura batter's residual grease dominated the flavor, and the gorgonzola cream dip was so short on cheese and so thin that we actually had to look back at the menu to be certain that it was indeed a bleu cheese dip we were supposed to have been eating. Finally, a shared Chicken saltimbocca sandwich with prosciutto and fontina and a green peppercorn aioli on toasted ciabatta ($8.75) failed to save the day. The bread's toasting marks were on the black side, and the prosciutto suspiciously resembled ham again, this time a thinner, sandwich-style slice. The peppercorn aioli was too spare to elevate the chicken to upscale sandwich status, so we asked for the check and again left Collin B's unimpressed.
Now, some of you readers may think that we restaurant critics relish the opportunity to lambaste a restaurant, but nothing could be further from the truth. We're in this job because we love food and all the wonderful possibilities that exist for making it memorable. In many ways, a restaurant critic is a chef's best audience, generally enthusiastic and always eager to taste. Which brings me back to the role expectation plays in the overall dining experience. Perhaps I set my hopes for Collin B's too high. Then again, with all the promotion I'd read and heard surrounding the restaurant, probably not. Regardless, I left the restaurant each time feeling like I'd been cheated out of what might have been an encore performance. The food at Collin B's looked good, yes, and so did the setting in which it was presented. But in my opinion, there is room for improvement in the taste department, something that, once it's achieved, just might land the restaurant, with its good service and memorable décor, a rousing ovation.