It's been well over five years since last we've set foot in Westlake's Saucy Bistro. So we can't be certain whether the present state of affairs is the result of changing times or changing talent. But we can tell you this: SB Eighty-One, as the restaurant now is called, has lost much of the culinary excitement that kept this bistro jumping back in the day.
A split between longtime partners Matt and Shyla Barnes took Chef Matt out of the kitchen last fall. The pair had operated the business together since 1999, when the restaurant was on Center Ridge Road. Thanks in no small part to Matt's ambitious touch in the kitchen, Saucy Bistro quickly outgrew its modest 70-seat location. Moving to and renovating the old Bistro du Beaujolais space in 2004 gave the Barneses almost three times the room — and on some nights, that still wasn't enough.
Having dined at both locations, we recall meals filled with housemade duck and foie gras sausage, crispy sweetbreads, perfectly seared duck breasts, and plump prosciutto-wrapped scampi — all at a time when the West Side had all the gastronomic sophistication of a county fair. Perhaps it's a reflection of the times when diners prefer familiarity over adventure, but SB Eighty-One has gone mainstream.
What once was a menu filled with modern French and American cuisine has devolved into a loose-knit hodgepodge of entrées punctuated by — wait for it — pizzas, pastas, and burgers. We're guessing, too, that much of what once was made in-house has been offshored to outside providers. Chef Nick Dlugoss, former sous chef, does a good job with the resources at hand. But there's also room for improvement.
The name "pot sticker" comes from the fact that these Asian dumplings are pan-fried until they are stuck to the pot, leaving one side crisp and the other soft. Deep-frying them, as SB81 does, gives you the equivalent of a misshapen egg roll. But quibbles of preparation aside, the flavor was good. Redolent of soy and sesame, the veggie-filled dumplings are paired with a woodsy mushroom ragout.
Also tasty (and also deep fried) are the arancini: large orbs of cheese-stuffed rice. Pairing the heavy starters with a bright, simple marinara is a welcome approach.
We're happy to report that salads still are bright spots on the menu, with old favorites like the warm wild mushroom, beets in lemony dressing, and the "Bittaker" — with loads of bacon and blue — present and accounted for.
But we'd be willing to wager $10,000 from Mitt Romney's war chest that SB81's pizza dough arrives frozen. The puffy, crustless platters are bland, doughy, and mere vehicles for whatever lays on top. In our case that was an autumnal blend of sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions, and gruyère cheese.
A well-seasoned parmesan crust added interest to an otherwise straightforward chicken breast, paired with under-seasoned sautéed spinach. Pasta Bolognese, with pappardelle from Ohio City Pasta, hit the table cold and was kicked back to the kitchen for re-fire. After a spin in the microwave, it came back hotter than Hades.
A big ol' platter of braised short ribs had all the quivering tenderness and beefy goodness a diner could hope for. Too bad then that the beef was shellacked in an overly sweet, sticky ginger-hoisin glaze. As in the case of the chicken, the seasoning on the greens (in this case, bok choy) had been wholly overlooked.
Service could use a bit of fine-tuning as well. We experienced the all-too-common glitches: having to request bread when other tables did not, wishing we would have held on to our silverware so we wouldn't be without, and playing hide-and-seek with our server.
Also a likely victim of the times, the wine list — long a recipient of a Wine Spectator nod — has been truncated. There still are a few worthy and affordable options on the list. But as with the restaurant itself, its best days are behind it.