Plus Ça Change...

As I've come to expect from a Kim "Bryant-Lake Bowl" Bartmann restaurant, the wine and beer lists are delightful: The 50-some-beer list holds all the food-friendly Belgian ales plus all the bar-friendly bigger-flavored ones; the dinner-priced (most $12-$45) wine list was designed by sommelier Annette Peters and is a marvel of well-chosen bottles for both adventurous and timid palates. There are a number of under-$20 bottles worth taking a flyer on.

Desserts, made by pastry chef Tahani Al-Busairi, were uniformly good. I particularly liked a slice of warm strawberry-rhubarb pie ($4) and a rich, truffle-like flourless chocolate torte ($6), though the banana and Nutella crêpe ($6) needs sweet crêpe batter instead of the buckwheat batter it's now made with.

Truthfully, the only edible I didn't have luck with at Barbette was the soup. French onion soup ($4.50 a cup, $5.50 a bowl) was an oddly sweet, light, un-caramelized version of the dark classic. Daily soups at lunch, such as a cold watercress or hot asparagus, did nothing for me. While I'm quibbling, the frites that come with the steaks could use a little tweaking, and the macaroni gratin with Black Diamond Cheddar didn't thrill me, though I suspect mac and cheese is on the menu not for me, but for children. And in many ways Barbette is a perfect place to take kids, especially for late-afternoon tea parties or, um, cocktails: The still-sort-of-a-coffee-shop has a laudable selection of nonalcoholic drinks, including a wine-bottle-size juice-based "mimosa" ($5) which arrives with wine glasses and feels very festive. There are no table minimums at the restaurant, which certainly encourages lengthy explorations of, say, an Italian soda ($1.75) and a brownie ($2).

Which I'd like to come out strongly against.

I'm only partly kidding. Actually, I was being a little disingenuous up top. I know perfectly well why Barbette isn't mobbed, and it has to do with one pretty basic problem. When smoky, casual coffee shop Café Wyrd made the transition to hip bistro Café Barbette, it didn't totally morph, keeping too many of its coffee-shop attributes: tiny, two-coffee-cup-size tables; way too much smoke tolerance; way too much coffee-shop-customer tolerance; and servers who don't give evidence of having had any training whatsoever.

I had an absurd exchange with each and every server I encountered at Barbette. The first was the breathless kid who interrupted the meal every 30 seconds to inquire as to basic points of service: "So, do you want the appetizers together?" Yes. Runs off. Returns. "Before the other stuff?" Yes, and the other stuff is called entrées. Run. Return. "And you still want the entrées?" Darling, if you've never been to a restaurant before, I can't remedy it through this game of 20 questions. And then there was the time I sat at a table for 20 minutes until a woman arrived, wild-eyed, demanding, "What do you want from me?"

The overall impression that I left with was not the typical bad service, but more like being in one of those New York diners where the server and the force of their personality is in charge, not the customer. Actually, most of the time I probably wouldn't have so many objections to a server's-personality-driven quirky Uptown restaurant. As owner Bartmann puts it, "How is it you have life in a restaurant? Because the people working there are alive and have personalities. In a corporate place, a lot of how they make things work is to take the personalities out."

Except that here some of these personalities seem to be actively getting in the way of Lisa Carlson's marvelous cooking. I won't soon forget the time a server told me that a quiche made with one of springtime's most prized delicacies, wild, scallion-like ramps, was onion quiche. To put it bluntly, I think the people who appreciate a slice of purple potato drizzled in a rare, rich olive oil are not the same people who chain-smoke at a table all through the dinner hour, and Barbette has to choose between them. Clearly, it's time to tote this baby in front of some wise king who can offer to split it with his sword.

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