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"Shabby's not quite the word," countered my old hippie friend Debbie. She surveyed the dining room between bites of her Brookside Benedict, made with spinach instead of ham for Sharp's vegetarian contingent. "It's void of any style. It's just boring."
True enough. But I can ignore those tired framed posters of dead Hollywood icons (James Dean cavorting in cinema purgatory with Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and Judy Garland), or the mirrored back wall that needs a good spray of Windex. What I find so annoying is how, after the breakfast crowd clears out, the suddenly overpriced food becomes as bland as a Johnson County precinct committee meeting. Maybe if Sharp's were more overtly gay, the décor might be more attractive and the food would be better throughout the day. But as it is, the place tries too hard to be all things to all people.
At one meal, I tried desperately to work up enthusiasm for what the menu called "nearly famous" artichoke dip, which was concocted of not nearly enough chopped artichokes (a staple of a half dozen Sharp's dishes) and way too much cream cheese. Edible? Yes. Famous? Never. The restaurant's signature soup -- cream of water chestnut -- has achieved a certain level of celebrity, mostly based on the story that Sharp and her chef accidentally made the first batch of soup with water chestnuts instead of the required roasted chestnuts and decided they preferred their new version. And the mildly seasoned soup, flavored with carrot, celery and onion along with the slightly sweet water chestnuts, does have a soothing quality.
I have friends who think I'm too bitchy for whining about Sharp's dull dinners, but even my butchest dining companions found themselves arching eyebrows over mediocre suppers too often accompanied by a "medley" -- a once-happy word that has become a culinary pejorative -- of soggy, overcooked carrots, cauliflower, broccoli and red peppers. Or even worse: a glob of sticky, heavily spiced rice that has more in common with rice pudding than a side dish. I ended up going cholesterol-mad and choosing French fries as the vegetable du jour with every meal, from chewy grilled barbecued pork chops that had the consistency of a cardboard yard sign to sautéed peanut chicken strips that were worthless without the accompanying teriyaki sauce.
Sharp's has never pretended to serve gourmet fare. Trasi Sharp calls her restaurant's offerings "comfort food," and the simplest choices -- hamburgers, salads, a charbroiled steak -- come off better than the more "creative" alternatives. But not always. I tried chewing through Sharp's variation on a pork tenderloin, finally giving up when I realized that the meat under the gristly breading was as tender as Ben-Hur's sandals. When the kitchen gets artful, the food is even less successful: a grilled chicken breast smothered in a salty artichoke cream sauce or pair of greasy fried crab cakes served over a "dollop of lobster cream sauce" that was free of any recognizable taste, lobster or otherwise.
My friend Bob's petite fried chicken breast arrived forlornly on a plate with two uninspired dipping sauces and a gummy, overdressed coleslaw. "I could get better chicken at Go Chicken Go," he fumed. "And cheaper."
I reminded him that Sharp's dinner, like my plate of crab cakes, includes a cup of soup or a salad (the Caesar is so drenched with dressing it could almost pass as a soup) and those dreadful steamed vegetables, but my argument fell on deaf ears. Bob had never been a Sharp's devotee, and his patience was ebbing, especially after my dessert arrived: a "chocolate mousse cake" that looked more like a gloppy, messy bundt cake.