The bistro is believed to have originated when Paris still used coal and wood to heat water. Small shops, originally called bougnats, sold coal and wood and, as a sideline, glasses of wine, calvados or coffee to hungry workers. As these shops began to prosper, sheds turned into buildings that offered up rudimentary meals for those too busy or too poor to have a home. The original bistros fed not only the hungry bellies, but a bit of the soul as well.
Regardless of the history of the bistro, the present allure arises from the promise of honest, good cooking at fair prices. The atmosphere provides a small extension of home and hearth by offering up a sense of community, a bit of family to join you whether you stop for a glass of beer and small snack, or a homey meal for the weary traveler.
It was with a sense of optimism we entered Alexander's American Bistro. The name sounded promising and solid. Although it's housed in the Doubletree Guest Suites on Speedway, we decided to give Alexander's the benefit of the doubt. Many fine ventures have cut deals with hotels and managed to run decent restaurants. From a restaurateur's point of view, it is a boon to have a captive audience. Surely, housed in a hotel, a bistro should hold the allure of a home away from home.
Clearly someone placed a good deal of care into the design of the dining room. Dark paneled wood, beveled windows and low booths create a tidy look. Although there isn't a sense of personal charm or a stylish signature, there is an air of expectation.
Which didn't follow through to the limited menu. We studied it. This didn't take long. It's never a good sign when nothing beckons from the menu as being singular, interesting or even remotely original.
We decided to start with the tortilla soup ($4.50). In Tucson, tortilla soup is wide open for interpretation. Naturally, certain ingredients should make an appearance. Tortillas would be one of them. When we were served a tomato soup with bits of celery and a mass of melted cheese, we believed an error had been made. When we asked our slightly embarrassed server, she assured us this was the tortilla soup. But surely, we said, shouldn't there be some tortillas in the soup? With all sincerity she confided to us, "It's seasoned with tortilla."
We numbly nodded. Clearly this issue had been broached before, and there could be no adequate response. In such moments it is best to let silence enter you.
We sat with the soup and contemplated what seasoned with tortilla could possibly mean. Perhaps the bowl had briefly sat next to a package of tortillas and "absorbed" the essence of tortilla by merit of being near them. Perhaps someone had whispered the word "tortilla" over the bubbling vat. Or, possibly, one was meant to contemplate tortillas as one ate. We found the recommended course of action was to ignore the soup completely and search the menu for what to try next. Unfortunately, the mongrel bowl did nothing to inspire confidence.
On a whim, we opted for Maryland Crabcakes ($9) and Bistro Cobb Salad ($8.75) as appetizers.
The salad was an enormous mounded plate that combined the traditional ingredients: hard-boiled egg, bacon, blue cheese, cucumber and tomato. While nothing offended, nothing struck us as particularly fresh or handled with care. We nibbled and left most of it.
The crabcakes, however, were a pleasant surprise. Two golden cakes were moist and tender, and composed mostly of crabmeat. Pan-fried to a crispy golden brown, these were a fulfilling and complete dish.
Since the selection of entrées was austere, we opted to try a burger ($7.50) and the grilled pork chops ($14.50). While not a noted beef fan, I've had burgers that offered a moment's pause. This was a not one of them. It was a regular burger, a little on the tough side.
While the server was supposed to offer a choice of sides, she simply brought fries. During the course of the meal, a series of service errors became annoying. Dishes appeared at random--some before we were ready, others long after the main meal had been served. Had we been ordering items separately or tasting, this wouldn't have been so irritating, but no apologies were offered, so one can only assume this was a routine occurrence.
When the pork chops arrived, they were clearly a success. Served with garlic mashed potatoes, the chops were tender and cooked to a turn. Pork chops can be so forgiving, and here they were showed well with a light bordelaise sauce. Of all the menu items, this came closest to the promise of true bistro fare: a homey and satisfying plate.
At our server's suggestion, we finished with the bread pudding ($4.50). An enormous serving arrived in a caramel sauce. This was a tender and comforting dessert, made with a bit of love. The flavors and textures were mindful of one another; the caramel sauce worked to offset the pudding. Golden and crisped at the edges, a bit chewy, a bit creamy, this simple concoction only made us sad at the lost opportunity this venue represents.
In the end, Alexander's American Bistro is a miss. The menu is too limited in its scope, and not consistently prepared with a sense of what a true bistro should offer. Not only are the servers poorly trained, but the venue lacks the ability to create a coherent dining experience. Still, the potential is there.
True, it would take a bit of bravado to gut the menu, retrain the staff and create a sense of gracious hospitality and atmosphere. But surely if the bistro has managed to adapt and survive for so many hundreds of years, Alexander's can manage to rise to the occasion and practice a bit of active reinvention.
And perhaps they could begin with the tortilla soup. As in actually making some.