Recently a friend complained to me about a well-regarded bistro whose tables, he thought, were so uncomfortably close together that having a conversation was like being on a party line with strangers. No such problem troubles Lehr's grill room: The tables are comfortably far apart, yet the place doesn't feel stuffy or lethargic. The setting radiates instead an airy energy; it's a place of invigorating spaciousness.
The food -- "classics with attitude," as the menu says -- doesn't hurt. Chef Phillip Michael Stevens serves up a fair number of familiar items, from Caesar salad to Dungeness crab cakes to oysters Rockefeller, but he has a knack for adding distinctive touches that illuminate the classics from new angles -- emphasizing sun-dried tomato in the tapenade served with the bread, for instance, which gives the paste a rich red color and a brighter fruitiness (with less salt) than the usual black-olive-based version.
And some classics, such as white-corn chowder ($2.95 for a cup), don't need witty embellishment. Good corn and good house-made chicken stock made the thing go, while a few slivers of scallion and red pepper contributed mostly visual interest. (Corn chowder may be the ideal summertime soup in this city, because it's high season for sweet corn, while all the windy fog of July and August suits the chowder's creamy heartiness.)
House smoked salmon and potato latkes ($6.95) also didn't need much tweaking, especially since the fish was top-drawer -- plump and tender, a deep brick color. I would have liked the pancakes crisped a bit more, but they had a nice moist tenderness inside, almost like cake. With chive sour cream and slices of Bermuda onion on the side, it was like having a nice deli brunch.
But an inventive dish, rock shrimp and wild-rice fritters ($6.95) failed pretty miserably, despite a tangy-hot orange marmalade-horseradish sauce napped around the edges of the plate. The fritters were sensational-looking -- rugged, asteroidlike balls the size of tangerines -- but drastic undersalting left them with no flavor whatever. Attempts at resuscitation with the salt shaker at the table brought a flicker of relief, but not much.
The kitchen recovered its rhythm on the main courses, starting with poached local halibut ($15.75), an expertly cooked chunk of fillet on a bed of rice. Not plain white rice, either, but jasmine rice (a beautifully fragrant variety) tossed with toasted pine nuts. The binder was a pale-yellow orange-basil hollandaise sauce, light and at the same time just rich enough to give the fish a deeper, satisfying note.
The Dungeness crab cannelloni ($12.95) is the sort of dish that justifies the ongoing experiment in California cuisine: big tubes of pasta stuffed with crab meat, oyster mushrooms, chives, and bechamel sauce. The encircling pool of hearty Roma tomato sauce seemed South Italian or Sicilian, but the overall effect of the dish was Mexican; eating it gave the same visceral delight as a plate of first-rate enchiladas.
Pastry chef Noah Butter's desserts (all $6) are creations -- sometimes too much so. The tropical creme brulee was astonishingly good, a silky custard infused with mango; but the presentation included a piece of fried dough that looked like a warped shoe sole and made access to the custard difficult. And buttermilk shortbread, while prettily festooned with whipped cream, blackberries, strawberries, and slices of kiwi, was a little dry.
The much smaller bistro, at the front of the restaurant, has long windows that look onto Sutter Street and the endless parade of (mostly) European tourists trooping here and there in the mild sunshine. We sat happily and pretended that we, like they, were on holiday.
Soup again for me, this time broccoli-leek ($2.95 for a cup), creamy and well-seasoned, with just the right balance of flavors between its two big ingredients.
Starting a lunch with a plate of oysters Rockefeller ($6.95) seemed overwhelming to me, but my friend tucked into them with the enthusiasm of a truly ravenous person. The mollusks (in their peach-size shells) had been slathered with spinach, mozzarella and Asiago cheeses, and (surprise ingredient) fennel, with its pale breath of licorice. Then to the broiler, which left the cheese nicely blistered and the oysters half-raw.
Fennel again in the sauteed tiger prawns ($12.95), but not enough to save them. The shrimp were inadequately seasoned, and even an accompaniment of roasted tomato, virgin olive oil, and basil wasn't enough to bring off a rescue.
I wish that I could say the Lehr Brothers Bistro Burger ($7.50) -- topped as it was with New York white cheddar and served on a sourdough baguette with fries -- was my first good cheeseburger ever in this city. But it wasn't. Like the famed Zuniburger on focaccia, it emphasized the wrong things -- boutique cheeses and fancy breads. What makes a cheeseburger great is a soft, fresh roll (sourdough is too chewy) spread with plenty of salted butter. (Such a cheeseburger -- the world's best, I think -- can be had at a place called Solly's, on Port Washington Road in the Milwaukee suburbs. Cash only, no reservations or tables -- just a long, undulating counter and a very short menu.)
Still, an iffy burger doesn't seriously blemish Lehr Brothers Bistro and Grill. Just stick to the poached halibut and that gorgeous hollandaise sauce, and enjoy the greenhouse effect.
Lehr Brothers Bistro and Grill, at 740 Sutter, serves breakfast every day from 6:30 to 11 a.m., the bistro menu from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. Call 474-6478.