If you want to deconstruct Alair Bistro, the "Grilled Marinated Beef Tenderloin and Veal Stock/Red Wine Reduction with White Polenta" ($18.75) provides the perfect template. The dish looks great, conjuring thoughts of meltingly tender, rare beef with a crisp, smoky char; a steaming pool of creamy polenta, moistened by a rich alchemy of condensed bone broth and wine. It connotes upscale but homey fare, warm and inviting, something substantial, sophisticated, and good that can be served without overt grandeur. But descriptions only scratch the surface, promising a great meal at a reasonable price. A superior establishment exceeds the expectation it generates.
Alair seems a well-appointed place. Despite being crammed into a nondescript, strip-mall location off Houston Northcutt, it presents itself as a welcome oasis from the exhaust fumes of Mt. Pleasant. A sidewalk placard denotes the specials; a friendly staff greets you at the door; the plush bar at the end of the single dining room invites an after-work drink. Chef and management are both visible, bustling in and out of the small galley kitchen beyond. Warm walls display a gallery of beautiful modern art, shielded from the clamor of the strip by indoor foliage and billowing curtains. A restful feeling permeates the space, soft music and the clink of glasses tuning out the rigors of the day; the arrival of the menu, and its descriptions of fine food, promise an exemplary meal.
Appetizers are classic — relevant and timeless favorites, tweaked only with the trendy infusion of international style. A take on antipasto mingles olives, goat cheese, caramelized onions, and pesto, served with fresh breads that seem to invite a do-it-yourself bruschetta experience. "Crab Cakes with Whole Grain Mustard Sauce and Citrus Marinated Jicama" ($7.95) and "Tempura Fried Shrimp and Cucumber Asian Slaw with Teriyaki Cream Sauce" ($7.50) provide innovative treatments of old coastal stand-bys. Faced with fresh salads and interesting soups, like the "Clams, Shrimp, Chorizo Sausage, White Beans and Tomatoes" ($8.25), you breathe in the menu and think "what a great idea for a small, strip-mall bistro in Mt. Pleasant." As you look up, exhale relaxingly, and dig into your first dish, you realize that all at Alair Bistro is not what it initially seems.
The disappointment comes slowly, as if you are loath to believe the reality. Bites of the crab cake reveal a homogenous mixture devoid of lump meat, mealy with bread — forgivable, but alarming. The whole grain sauce is good and it begs a quality preparation. The tempura shrimp provide a glimmer of hope; they are perfect, large shrimp, butterflied and fried with the lightest of batters, served with an interesting and delicious sauce concoction. The seafood stew comes to the table looking like a beautiful symphony. Big nuggets of seafood loll around in a spicy broth; fat cuts of chorizo sausage poke through with a heavenly aroma. The taste is delicious, until the mixture hits the part of your tongue that reports on salt, quickly firing back a message to your brain: "Tongue reporting... you may have wiped out while surfing and have a clam lodged in your mouth."
At this point, things have surely gone awry. Another look around the room reveals even more idiosyncrasy. Cheap, freestanding halogen lamps — the kind that you used in college to make moths explode into flame upon contact — provide the ambient glow, their power cords snaking visibly along the wall. The ceiling shows remembrances of past water leaks. You notice that the modern art is all up for sale (have you ever seen a diner walk out with one of the wall-hangings? I haven't). The experience unfolds like a surreal ink blot that your mind sees from all angles. You eventually realize that Alair Bistro bears little resemblance to the promise of its façade. It suspends reality only to have food that jerks one back to planet Earth.
Other dishes only confirm the ruse. The "Pan Seared Scallops over Butter Sautéed Polenta Cakes with Roasted Red Peppers" ($16.25) are overcooked, a stringy mess atop dense, gritty cakes awash in butter. Duck breasts come with a thick layer of unrendered fat and bathed in a strong profusion of truffle oil, overpowering the subtle flavors of fowl. Then we have that beef tenderloin. It rolls from the kitchen looking tasty; full with the promise Alair is so adept at presenting. Yet, it also fails to deliver. A nice char is marred by a strange metallic flavor in the marinade (liquid smoke perhaps?). The meat does not seem to be of a particularly high quality, nor does the "reduction" have any of the deep savor one would expect to find paired against a rich lump of red meat — the polenta is gritty and undercooked. Dessert fare shows little improvement from the main dishes. An acceptable "Dark Chocolate Mousse" showcases acceptable flavor and fresh, seasonal strawberries, but the crème brûlée leaves much to be desired. As my dinner companion, a self-avowed champion of crème brûlée, put it: "It is burnt sugar atop watery cream." Suffice it to say that the food at Alair consistently fails to measure up to its promise.
This reality is perplexing because Alair seems to offer so much. The menu and the majority of the dining area speak the language of a competent establishment. Most of the food pairings display an excellent synergy, flavors seem creatively and harmoniously combined, yet the food that emerges lacks adroit execution. Overly salted, sometimes greasy, inferior ingredients, not cooked to the right temperature — all of these traits raise suspicion about the skill of the kitchen — as if a competent chef hides in the corner, allowing an apprentice to practice their craft on your dinner. Alair could do much better. Almost everything is already in the right place; they just need a kitchen with the skill to pull it off.