When I first stepped into Yes Bistro, the new upscale restaurant near Russian Jack Park, I was impressed. The building's pancake-house history has been completely eradicated and the results are contemporary and gleaming--polished wood, poured concrete and stainless accents (lots of them) make for an appealing ambience. An open kitchen, staffed by crisp, white-toqued chefs, create a sense of fun and anticipation.
The menu, representing "international bistro" food according to the restaurant's own description, has something to offer everyone. Nachos, flatbreads, salads and soups are on offer as starters. The lunch selections include seafood and steak options, some specialty dishes (like cioppino, fish tacos, and meatloaf) and a selection of sandwiches and pizzas. To me, these choices read like contemporary American rather than "international," but perhaps I'm overthinking it.
Service at the door was pleasant and we were seated quickly. Our waiter was with us quickly and was attentive throughout the meal.
We began our weekend lunch with a shared order of the calamari ($13). It was not a success. It arrived at the table less than hot. The coating was pasty, not crispy, and slid off the chunks of calamari, which were chewy and undercooked. The dish gave no sign of the heat which harissa should have lent to it. The chili-cilantro aioli sauce served alongside the calamari was tasty but not enough to make the dish appetizing.
For a main course, my companion ordered the 907 fish and chips ($16). This looked beautiful when it arrived at the table--golden brown and crispy, with a fan of skin-on potato wedges orbiting the plate. Looks were deceiving. While the fish was crispy and the batter was light (proving that someone in the kitchen can properly fry seafood), the dish was under-seasoned and almost aggressively bland. "Completely tasteless," is how my friend put it. "It's like eating nothing." The potatoes were delicious (though, not hot) and disappeared quickly. We considered ordering another plate.
My jambalaya was the meal's most successful dish but was, in a way, perplexing. Described as a "classic-style" jambalaya, it was presented (and tasted) much more like a gumbo. It was served like chunky soup with a heap of rice in the middle--rather than a rice dish into which all of the savory ingredients have been incorporated. The results were tasty, however, and the dish arrived teeming with shrimp, Tasso ham, and sausage. The broth leaned toward the sweet side, which left me yearning for the savory kick of a traditional jambalaya.
We left a bit hungry, truth be told. We wished our lunch had delivered on the promise of our first impression. On our way out, my companion noted there seemed to be more chefs in the kitchen than actual diners, making the kitchen's execution problems even more of a mystery.
My second visit--a weeknight dinner--was more successful.
I had a new dining companion, who was excited to see the room's transformation. While she agreed that the restaurant was beautiful to look at, she bemoaned the music being pumped (rather loudly) into the dining room. Sax-heavy, smooth jazz covers of contemporary hits felt sort of "hotel-ish," said my friend, and kind of old. Less "hip," more "early bird special," we concluded.
We ordered the prosciutto flat bread ($13) which arrived as a pizza-style disc with little rolls of prosciutto, chunks of fresh, balsamic-drizzled melon, and crispy, bubbly cheese underneath. The balance of salty, age-cured pork with crisp, sweet melon made it an irresistible dish, and it disappeared quickly.
My companion ordered the Gaucho-style rib eye ($29). The steak (ordered rare to medium-rare) was cooked perfectly and had a beautiful sear. The spice rub that coated the steak was strangely sweet but nicely balanced by the salty olive tapenade that accompanied it. We didn't really notice the Café de Paris sauce that was described on the menu and a creamy element would have elevated the flavors. The mashed potatoes under the steak looked beautiful--rustic and chunky, flecked with bits of red skin--but they were under-seasoned and, somehow, a bit watery.
My entrée was the Yes Bistro Burger ($19) and I recommend it if only to see firsthand this feat of sandwich engineering. A tower of beef, cheese, Portobello mushroom, sautéed onions, crispy onions, bacon, lettuce and tomato, it was delivered to the table with a flourish. If the idea of a $19 burger bothers you please note: this dish can be shared--possibly by more than two people. I enjoyed a third of the burger before having to admit defeat.
I'm glad that my second visit was such an improvement on the first. A sizeable, comfortable, attractive place to meet, eat, and drink is something we can't take for granted in Anchorage. But I hope Yes Bistro irons out some of the kinks in the kitchen--because for right now, it's only a maybe.
By MARA SEVERIN
Daily News correspondent