What's in a name, Shakespeare's Juliet asks. Not a heckuva lot when it's Bistro 71/4, and Alexander Svenne isn't in the kitchen. And he isn't. The name may not have changed, but the cooking has. The restaurant has been under new ownership since last November and the difference is dramatic.
Since my last review some years ago, the space has been doubled to include a bar and lounge, which is now the preferable area -- quieter, with more space between the tables. The sleek, understated original room is passably comfortable if you can get one of the few tables near the windows in front, but I'd avoid the dark, cramped and very noisy interior.
However there are more significant changes. Lunch is no longer served, at least not during the summer. Many previous dishes have been dropped, such items as veal and foie gras sliders, lamb meatballs, rack of lamb and confit of rabbit. What remains is a smaller, less ambitious menu, with prices that haven't changed much, but which now are unrealistically high, both for the quality of the food and the skimpiness of many portions.
The general tone is different too. I'm not fussy about glassware, but I did expect something less tacky than an ordinary kitchen tumbler for my caesar. A stalk of celery would have been nice too, and (although I don't like them, since they alter the flavour) even a pickle spear would have been an indication of effort. So would some bread to nibble on with our drinks or, later, to keep company with the food.
Part of the menu is devoted to eight "small plates," and those we sampled yielded several serious misses, just one that was almost very good, and one that was merely passable. The best of the lot was the slightly rare, 72-hour short rib cooked sous vide. It was tender and moist in a maple-sweetened sauce (too sweet for my taste, but possibly not for others), but the mashed potatoes with it had no taste of the cheese and garlic that would have justified the term "aligot." And $14 for a mere few mouthfuls of meat was a shocker. The best I can say about the scallops is that they weren't overcooked, but they were very small, without much juice or flavour, garnished with bland, only semi-pureed cauliflower, and a scattering of pale sliced almonds that might have come straight from a package (another shocker at $18 for four such wee ones).
And that was as good as our "small plates" got. The chicken livers were dreadful, with that strong livery flavour that makes some people think they hate liver -- again, only a few mouthfuls, and those few hidden under a few chunks and one massive ball of bread that were soggy with the unpleasantly strong ale-flavoured sauce, garnished with shallots that tasted boiled, not caramelized ($15). The slightly sweet surface of the duck confit was pleasant but there wasn't a drop of juice left in the meat, the grilled brioche it sat on was dry and the "pickled vegetables" were simply thin slices of dill pickles ($18). Ricotta gnudi (described to us as gnocchi) were leaden, rubbery, didn't taste of ricotta, and were tossed with pale tomatoes and topped (the only good part) by a nicely runny poached egg ($12).
The matchstick fries are still wonderful, but the mussels -- once the glory of this house -- were tiny and nasty, in such a visible state of disintegration they should never have been allowed out of the kitchen. (Did nobody in the kitchen notice? Did they think we wouldn't?). Moreover they'd been crammed into a small, narrow bowl, which made the sauce difficult to get at, which was probably just as well since there was no taste of basil, little of white wine and the tomato part of the sauce was simply raw, anemic chunks scattered across the top ($19).
There are only six "large plates" (a.k.a. entrées), four of which we sampled, only two of which weren't a total loss. Pan-fried pickerel fillets were pretty good ($26), and although the surface texture was slightly pulpy, a 10-ounce rib steak was tender and tasty ($29). However, the flavour of the massive pork chop was decidedly over-the-hill ($29), and the wild mushroom ravioli were tough and flat, with a bare minimum of mushroom filling ($28). Garnishes of snap peas and asparagus were good, and the fries with the steak wonderful, but the wild rice pilaf that came with the pork and the pickerel was a denatured, flavourless mush, tasting overcooked and/or reheated once too often.
Since the small plates and the large ones were sampled on different occasions, the string of failures obviously wasn't the result of a single off night. But given what was leading to a rare, exceptionally low star rating I decided to give a few of the less successful dishes another try.
There was one great difference -- the duck confit was delicious this time, with a crisp skin and juicy, flavourful meat. But that was the only improvement. The liver, if anything, was worse -- still too livery, still with huge chunks of bread in an unpleasant sauce, and this time, yielding only three small halves of chicken livers for a preposterous $16. The wild mushroom ravioli were still tough, the fillings still skimpy, and, at five ravioli for $28, dramatically overpriced at $5.60 each.
Contrary to its description, the bread pudding didn't taste of spice or rum and had only the occasional raisin in a brown sugar sauce that wasn't caramelized; the bread was only partly in chunks, with one thick slab at the bottom that wasn't entirely soaked through ($8.50). The pets de soeurs were a better choice -- much like mini-cinnamon buns with maple whipped cream and bananas brulée ($8).
The wine list isn't huge but has several interesting choices, with many available by the glass, in both six- and nine-ounce pours. I've had complaints about slow service but in our case it was just fine.