Blue Onion: too much of a not-so-good thing

A gas station is the most American sort of building, so when the Blue Onion Bistro opened nearly four years ago in a converted gas station, it appropriately offered quirky, clever renditions of American classics. Best of all, the food was a little more refined and flavorful than the kitschy surroundings would suggest.

Now under new ownership, the BOB retains its knickknack-based decor and playful menu descriptions. But after three recent meals there, it's become clear that the food has lost much of its appeal.

Let's start with dinner. The beef-tenderloin stroganoff ($16) is a gargantuan plate of creamy, soft pasta with morsels of beef tenderloin, a dollop of sour cream and little flavor. The BOB has always featured huge portions, and had the stroganoff been good, I would have easily gotten three meals out of it, although there is a $2.50 charge to share. Calories aside, a plate this huge is simply unappetizing: Eating it feels like work.

The BOB serves a variety of breaded meats, including the Fat Man's Chicken ($16), which is billed as "creamy buttermilk fried chicken" but is more like chicken schnitzel — sheets of boneless breaded chicken with a dill-heavy chili sauce. Not a bad way to treat a chicken breast, and much better than the overcooked chicken-fried steak ($14) and Opa's Pork Schnitzel ($17). The schnitzel's "seasonal vegetables" included asparagus.

However, the schnitzel did come with a fascinating little cucumber salad, tart bits served in a martini glass, that was probably the best thing on the table. Or maybe that honor should go to the garbanzo chop salad ($9), a tasty amalgam of romaine lettuce, salami and garbanzos with a dijon vinaigrette. "Picky Ray loves her salads," says the menu, and Ray is onto something.

Desserts are also big on mass and light on flavor. The brownie sundae ($7.50) sweeps an overcooked brownie under a carpet of whipped cream. The brownies are moister but still bland in the brownie pudding ($7), a bread-puddinglike concoction that also features a huge scoop of ice cream and whipped cream. Fortunately, a simple chocolate milkshake ($4) was creamy, satisfying and big enough to share.

If you do end up at the BOB, here's how to cobble together a decent dinner for two: Split the chop salad and Fat Man's Chicken, ask for one of those cucumber salads and share a milkshake for dessert.

At lunch, the BOB serves burgers and sandwiches on its own bread, which is unfortunately ill-suited to the task. More like a biscuit than a roll, the bread is too crumbly and dense to support a half-pound burger. That's not the only reason to avoid the Cowboy Joe's Burger ($9), however: The patty was overcooked and the barbecue sauce was thick and syrupy sweet, overwhelming the beef, bacon and caramelized onions. A dry BLT ($8) was served on an oblong version of the same roll.

The lunch menu also includes salads (the chop salad isn't on there), soups ($5-$7) and a few entrees such as the stroganoff ($10) and equally bland mac and cheese ($9).

After all this, I had my money on brunch. The BOB brunch menu is long on classics: biscuits and gravy, pancakes, omelets, waffles. I wanted to be able to tell you that this is where the kitchen shines. Instead, I'm left asking: How do you screw up a waffle? This Belgian-style waffle ($7) was sour and dry; not even crumbled bacon in the batter could save it. A blueberry pancake platter ($8.50) featured pancakes burnt on the outside and runny on the inside.

The Mexican omelet ($9) includes black beans, tomato, jalapeños, ground beef and cheese — a tasty combination, but it was too cheese-heavy and the exterior was overcooked. Only the bacon and spinach omelet ($6.50) was without obvious flaws.

Chef Matt Urban and the Leitner family, who took over the BOB last year, are clearly trying hard. Service, often courtesy of mom Cora and daughter Ray Leitner, is cordial and attentive. The restaurant is also kid-friendly; my daughter had a great time growling at the tiger on the Ringling Bros. poster above our table, and she enjoyed the nicely cooked scrambled eggs that came with the pancake platter. The dining room has no central heating, but it seemed that each time I went in, the BOB had added another space heater until it found the right balance.

It's clear that the Bistro does know something about customer service, but the food goes wrong so often it's downright puzzling.

Matthew Amster-Burton:

Blue Onion Bistro

5801 Roosevelt Way N.E., Seattle; 206-729-0579;




Reservations: accepted, but not necessary.

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Fridays, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Saturdays, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. Sundays.

Prices: brunch: brunch standards $3.50-$11, sides $2-$4.50; lunch: sandwiches, burgers and entrees $6-$10, soups and salads $5-$10; dinner: appetizers, soup and salads $5-$16, entrees $12-$22, dessert $7.

Wine list: a usual-suspects list of about two dozen domestic bottles ($15-$45), most available by the glass ($4.50-$8).

Sound: quiet

Parking: small lot plus street parking.

Beer and wine / credit cards: Visa, MC / smoking allowed on outdoor patio / no obstacles to access.