John Michael Martin had a great idea when he opened the Bistro at the Music Spot. He already had one of the most kick-ass collections of vinyl 45s around, placed for sale next to an impressive array of mainstream and hard-to-find CDs. He offered local concert tickets for sale with no surcharge, and had shelving to hold the massive collection of flyers for local and national acts. The Music Spot had the potential to become the record-geek haven in town. Why not put in a restaurant? Two great tastes that taste great together?
The Music Spot attempted to tie these two disparate interests together. There was live music almost every night, usually by local favorites, and the food garnered some good press in the local media. It seemed that the little bistro/club tucked at the back of the record store was going to make some waves.
Now, almost a year later, the novelty has worn off and the core identity crisis of the Music Spot has reared its ugly head. Is it a restaurant? A club? A venue? Hard to say if even the Music Spot knows the answer.
The Music Spot stopped booking new acts for the restaurant, relying on an explosive open mic night on Mondays - hosted by roots-music greats Ronny Elliott and Sandy Atkinson - and the jazz stylings of Drew Farmer and friends the rest of the week. Farmer's band is good, but after a couple of visits they just aren't a big draw.
A new chef was hired four months ago, but the menu has stayed largely the same. Alfredo Llana has made a living as both a chef and an artist. Turning painting into a performance art, he often works his canvasses with an audience, using live music to guide his spontaneous creative effort. At a previous gig with gallery/restaurant Viva La Frida, Llana even painted with chocolate. Is he chef or artist? Seems he should fit right in with the Music Spot.
Llana's work area is directly across from the stage, in an open kitchen that fronts an angled bar. The dining room is small, tiny for a music venue but perfect for a small bistro. A natural line is organically created that separates the people there for the music and the people there for the food. Too close to the stage equals too loud for conversation.
The jazz quartet was hot and smooth on a recent visit, but the food was distinctly flat. An asparagus, cheddar and spinach soup special ($4) was loaded with cream and cheese but had little asparagus flavor and no discernible spinach. A small piece of overcooked grouper sat atop the bowtie pasta special ($23), blackened fish lost in a sea of bland tomato cream sauce. With no other strong flavor to compete, the capers dominated this dish, each bite of pasta punctuated by the briny acidic pop of another couple of berries.
Music Spot's bistro burger ($10.99) sounded great, the meat mixed with fresh herbs and truffle oil and topped with smoked gouda and onion jam. In reality, the overdone patty was inundated with powerful dried herb seasoning, resulting in a flavor that was not dissimilar to adding a pack of onion soup mix to a pound of ground chuck. With bacon and sweet onions on top, it was reminiscent of a jazzed-up meatloaf sandwich.
That would have been the most disappointing item of the night, except for an adventure involving our fennel seared scallops ($10.99). The scallops were tender and cooked perfectly. Sadly, the accompanying sweet corn risotto was plagued by something gone rancid, maybe the butter or the colorful infused olive oils that dressed it. I couldn't force myself to figure out which.
Mochi (flour made from sushi rice) dusted tuna ($19.99) was barely seared, each slice a vivid red atop a multicolored pile of soba noodle salad. The tuna was simple and good, but the noodles and julienned veggies were dressed in a Ponzu that tasted strongly of sweet orange juice instead of the dark soy sauce and acidic bite of lime or lemon juice that is more common.
Some of Llano's compositions do hit high notes, though. A favorite was the gorgonzola and roasted tomato bisque ($4.25). A rustic tomato puree, sweet and acidic, was mellowed by rich and pungent gorgonzola. The eggplant tomato stack special ($8) was also impressive. Ripe tomato and creamy goat cheese contrasted with surprisingly crisp sections of breaded eggplant, the whole thing drizzled with a dark balsamic-maple vinaigrette. Cool and hot, crisp and smooth, tart and sweet, this dish came close to being a work of art.
Lunch is a better bet at the Music Spot. Straight-forward salads and sandwiches abound and there is no need to decide whether you are there for the food or the music. Place an order, browse the shelves, then come back and chow down at the counter with a good bottle of beer.
When we ate at the Music Spot on a recent Thursday night, only one other table was occupied. Our amiable and efficient server explained that the place had gotten slower recently, with the dinner crowd suffering the most.
Changes are being made, though. Chef Llano is planning on doubling the size of the menu, adding a lot of the specials to the main list. There has also been talk of going back to booking a greater variety of local acts on a regular basis.
It's hard for a place like this to maintain an identity while trying to fulfill so many different roles. The Music Spot does a great job selling vinyl, but the restaurant/performance venue is still finding its way.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected].
Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.