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Restaurants that don't change with the times -- and tastes -- can find themselves washed up. After seven years, Coos Bay Bistro is long overdue for a course correction.
Brett Davy opened the restaurant in 1994, taking over a small space that had been home to a neighborhood Italian joint for fifty years. From the start, Coos Bay felt cramped: The bar business swamped the dining room during happy hour, the step-up bathrooms were so tiny they felt like confessionals, and you had to wash your hands in a little public foyer. The menu was also overcrowded, an odd mix of Italian fare and dishes from the Pacific Northwest (Coos Bay is an inlet on the southwest edge of Oregon), with some Spanish-style tapas thrown in. Still, the restaurant was popular with the University of Denver bunch, as well as anyone lucky enough to find parking in this congested part of town, and Davy was eventually able to expand into the space next door. But by the time the health department came down hard on Coos Bay in 2000, Davy had grown weary of the grind. So last year, he sold Coos Bay to Philip Sauer and Carolyn Montanez, both former managers at Vasil's Euro-Grille and Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse.
Despite the new owners' experience with very different restaurants, Coos Bay hasn't changed much since the sale. The menu is still Italian-influenced Pacific Northwest fare (they even kept some of the more popular items from the original menu); the tapas are still Spanish-style, but far from authentic; the space is still cramped. By now, it's also a little dingy: The wrinkled carpet is filthy, and the chairs have scraped finishes. And the nonsensical name -- would anyone in Oregon eat at Maroon Bells Bistro? -- remains the same, now tarnished not just by critical health-department reports, but also by an unbelievably bad review in the Denver Business Journal that helped convince Davy to sell the place.
Smoked salmon pizza: $8
Crabmeat rounds: $10
Cream of red pepper soup: $5
French onion soup: $4
Caesar salad: $6
Italian wontons: $15
Sea scallops Mornay: $19
Grilled mahi mahi: $20
Oregano lamb chops: $21
Chocolate mousse: $6
Chocolate Napoleon: $6
The new owners may not be getting rave reviews, either. Sauer, who's in charge of the menu and does much of the cooking along with fellow chef Brian Crego, wants to be very international with his Italian wontons and Cuban mojo seabass, but his kitchen staff needs to master the basics of Cooking 101 first. Not only do the dishes lack subtlety and sophistication, they suffer from significant production problems. A tapas offering of smoked-salmon pizza, for example, featured a stale crust that tasted as though it had been frozen and barely thawed before being topped with thick slices of cheap lox, along with a tiny blob of herbed cream cheese. The concept of tapas involves small portions and small price tags; this item failed on both counts. The crabmeat rounds -- a rather unappetizing way to describe something that usually goes by the perfectly good name of crabcakes -- were balls of raw red and green pepper with only the barest hint of crab, burned black on the bottom and sitting in a spicy lobster sauce that was all about chile powder.
What was supposed to be cream of red pepper soup came much closer to water of onion; the pieces of onion were so big and soft that eating them was like biting into wet gauze bandages. But the soup that was actually billed as onion, specifically French onion, was excellent. A complex, deeply flavored stock that tasted mostly homemade came topped by a hearty chunk of bread that held up well in that delicious liquid, as well as a thick slab of almost-melted provolone. But the kitchen that somehow produced that soup couldn't properly chill the romaine for our Caesar, and even a well-balanced dressing and plenty of grated parmesan couldn't disguise the warm lettuce.
Over the course of three Coos Bay meals, I encountered dish after dish that might have worked had someone simply paid attention. Those Italian wontons -- with their clever, slippery-soft skins wrapped around lobster mixed with ricotta cheese and a rich, rich butter-based sauce made more interesting with pancetta and arugula -- would have been right on the mark if the kitchen had refrained from bombarding the finished product with a handful of dried thyme. Dried herbs can be cooked into a dish, or fresh herbs can be sprinkled on just before serving, but dried herbs added just before serving turn into so many pencil shavings.
Nothing could have saved the sea scallops Mornay, dry rubber balls covered with an alleged cheese-enhanced béchamel sauce that tasted like thinned milk and served on couscous pelted with so much parsley that it looked like tabbouleh. The grilled mahi mahi, also overcooked, came with a dry, crunchy basmati-rice crabcake. The promised citrus beurre blanc seemed to be nothing more than melted-butter goo incapable of moistening itself, much less a rice wad with a popcorn-ball exterior. And if the oregano on a pile of baby lamb chops was black -- doesn't anyone look at the food before it leaves the Coos Bay kitchen? -- you can guess how dried-out we found the meat beneath it.
After that entree, we were almost afraid to try dessert. One wasn't worth the calories: a lazy combination of three thin squares of chocolate layered with sweetened mascarpone, each element of which could have been wonderful if only the concoction hadn't been stacked ahead of time and refrigerated until the triple-cream cheese formed a crust on the outside and the chocolate started to pick up other flavors. But then Coos Bay presented us with another surprise, a textbook-perfect chocolate mousse adorned with copious amounts of whipped cream. When the kitchen has its act together, as it did with the mousse and the onion soup, it's capable of great things.
Unlike the kitchen staff, Coos Bay's servers are quick and sharp. The wine list tries hard, too, and includes some fun choices -- the Cline "Ancient Vines" Mourvedre, for instance, or the Borgo Buon Natale from the Santa Maria Valley -- at reasonable prices.
No matter how much you drink, though, a meal at Coos Bay could leave you high and dry.