Saute has imaginative food, an identity crisis

Saute, a fancy new bar-restaurant, opened in March where the Duck Inn was in Canton. It generated a lot of buzz, and it's the kind of place I would normally review a month or so after it opened. But, like Three... near Patterson Park, there was considerable turmoil in the kitchen after the first few weeks. The executive chef, Cyrus Keefer, left and was replaced by Mark Suliga, who had been at Cosmopolitan and Dooby's, and then Brian Mathias, formerly at Hampton's, Joy America and Brasserie Tatin.

I assumed the menu would have gone from being overly ambitious to upscale bar food from what I had been told about the reason for the change (that the dinner menu was too complicated, given how busy the place was at lunchtime, which left the kitchen little time to prepare in advance for Keefer's complicated entrees).

But pub grub it isn't. The menu has hickory-smoked chicken wings, but there are also dishes like achiote-crusted ahi and bouillabaisse. The food has no real theme that I could discern -- very little of it is actually sauteed in spite of the restaurant's name, for instance -- but the menu has a certain wacky charm of its own.

What can you say about a restaurant that features nachos made with tortilla chips covered in pulled duck meat, Vermont cheddar sauce and bread-and-butter peppers? (I've heard raves about this dish, by the way, but it didn't do much for me.)

Saute's first floor is a beautifully renovated space, especially on a nice evening when the huge windows open out. It's almost like eating outside. I love the tile tabletops mirrored by the tiles in the walls, the muted colors, the contemporary lighting. But does a space this small really need 10 flat screen TVs, even if they aren't turned on at dinnertime?

They say to me that Saute has a bit of an identity crisis. Right now, it's more bar than restaurant, and it's going to continue to be until the upstairs dining room opens. The noise level is staggering and gets worse as the evening wears on and people drink more. The neighbors must be unhappy when all the windows are open. My guess is that it's more of a bar than the owners originally planned it -- or want it -- to be.

But bar or not, there is imaginative food. The dinner menu is divided into Lite Fare, Greens, Grilled Pizza and Entrees. No appetizers. Thai Shrimp, for instance, features fat grilled shrimp prettily arranged with avocado, orange segment and mint -- and rectangles of shrimp toast, which make it a less elegant starter and more of a guilty pleasure.

If you pair this with, say, the risotto made with toasted orzo (don't ask me why you'd make risotto with orzo instead of rice except for the novelty value, but it tastes fine) studded with bits of ham, apple and Asiago cheese, you'd have a meal.

For something a little lighter, there's a pretty salad of Bibb lettuce and strawberries with candied walnuts and goat cheese. As far as I'm concerned, you can hold the grilled onions. If you order the salad with chicken, it's arranged on the side as if it's part of a composed salad, not just dumped on top.

Our waiter told us the veal ravioli special that night was so popular it's going to move to the regular menu. This is a very brown dish, in spite of the tomato concasse, with assertive flavors of veal, wine and cheese. Subtlety isn't its strong suit. I preferred the pizza puttanesca, also with bold flavors but softened by fresh mozzarella, with a crisp crust, fresh spinach, white anchovies, olives and capers.

You can get big-ticket items like steaks and crab cakes at Saute; but the Ultimate Meatloaf suited us just fine, with mashed potatoes and fresh green beans. A lingonberry sauce rather than something tomato-based gave it a bit of kick.

You wouldn't expect desserts to be a strong suit here, and they aren't. The strawberry cheesecake topped with chocolate ganache and the deadly chocolate cake are made in-house, according to our waiter, but they are beyond rich and not in a particularly appealing way. The best was the very fresh carrot cake from, gasp, Sysco.

I'll be interested to see what comes next for Saute. When we walked in, we were alone in the dining-room side of the first floor, except for one family with kids. By the time we left, the place was rocking; but it didn't look like the kind of crowd that would be ordering a bottle of Dom Perignon from the wine list. If there's not a hamburger or two on the menu in six months, I'll be surprised.