Sometimes I can walk into a restaurant and smell the aroma of impending disaster. The ingredients are all wrong: bad location, ill-conceived concept, poorly trained staff, horrible food. A short-lived steakhouse in Johnson County comes to mind; it opened and closed so quickly that I can't even remember its name. What I'll never forget is that the entire experience was so awful, it made a Western Sizzlin Steakhouse look like the Capital Grille.
Sometimes a restaurateur pulls together all the right ingredients and still comes up with something half-baked. And sometimes, as is the case with The Lodge Bar & Grille, a concept that has a lot of tasty components -- an attractive dining room, a terrific wine list, an interesting and reasonably priced menu, and excellent service -- is still missing that essential something. I'm not talking about a pinch of this or a teaspoon of that but, rather, an indefinable ingredient that would truly distinguish the place.
This three-month-old Plaza venue has one major problem, one that plagued the same owners when this was the Canyon Café: an awkward location, just around the corner from Pottery Barn. It's hard to see the entrance from 47th Street, though the gas-burning torches serve as beacons guiding customers to turn north on Broadway and climb the steep hill halfway up the block. Navigating into the parking garage across the street is a challenge, but exiting on foot -- back across the street and down a narrow walkway with a funny jog around a thick pole -- is even rougher. "Dorothy had less trouble on the yellow-brick road than I do getting from my car to the restaurant's front door," grouses one of my friends.
And that's just getting inside. Once you're through the front door, there are pretty hostesses to argue with. No, I don't want to sit upstairs. No, I don't want a booth. Yes, I do want the literary waiter who looks like a GQ model or the beautiful Lucy, who resembles a young Lisa Rinna.
The nice-looking staff complements the restaurant's dramatic interior, which has new earth-toned carpet, soothing new paint colors, new booths and artfully arranged Ansel Adams photographs. It's a more genteel ambience than the faux-Painted Desert feel of the Canyon Café, and executive chef Doug Czufin's sophisticated menu reflects the restaurant's rehabbed, "grown-up" tone.
There are a few culinary holdovers, such as the applewood-smoked salmon, the snakebite beans and the fire-roasted vegetable pasta. But most of the Southwestern-style dishes have been banished to make way for fancy versions of pioneer fare: buffalo steaks, veal meatloaf, chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese. The black wire baskets that once held tortilla chips now contain warm dinner rolls sided by a stingy ball of butter flavored with maple syrup -- that frontier touch rubbed me the wrong way, though my sugar-freak dining companions all loved it.
I've eaten three meals at The Lodge, and the food has been satisfying, though chef-manager Darren Bartley, who oversees the kitchen, needs to work out some serious kinks in the timing. After all, one key ingredient for a successful restaurant is not making customers wait too long between courses. And on all three of my visits, the kitchen was irritatingly slow -- even when the dining room was practically empty.
Admittedly, some of the dishes were worth waiting for -- unless I was just starving by the time our server arrived carrying appetizers of corn-crusted calamari and chicken lettuce wraps made with soft bibb lettuce instead of crunchy iceberg. Like almost everything at The Lodge, the portions were amazingly generous. My friend Bryan and I shared the Asian ahi salad -- thick ruby slices of lightly seared tuna, chopped apples and cabbage splashed with sesame vinaigrette -- but there was still plenty left over for Bryan to take home.
Bryan and Bob liked the virile, meat-heavy menu. "Are you sure this is for one person?" Bryan asked our server when he brought out an oversized lamb shank; the meat was so succulent that it practically fell off the bone. Bob ordered that night's dinner special, a juicy Kansas City strip sided with mashed sweet potatoes and chili mashers (surprisingly unfiery). Sadly, though, the roasted asparagus that came with the dinners had been roasted beyond death. "Maybe it's meant to be a decorative garnish," Bob suggested as he contemplated the thin, limp stalks.
I felt guilty ordering the crusted sea bass (knowing that overfishing has endangered it). But it sounded so delicious, served with sautéed spinach in a sesame-ginger broth. It turned out to be a wonderfully guilty pleasure, and I took solace in finding out that sea bass has grown so costly that the dish will soon be replaced with halibut.
The place was hopping a few days later. That Friday night, I brought along Bob and David Wayne for a meal that had all the right ingredients but fell weirdly flat. David Wayne was celebrating his 33rd birthday with a big, fat martini. The mood in the room was lively, the waiter was fabulous and we had a great people-watching table. So why did the creamy spinach dip, served in a martini glass, have to be a shade too salty? And the chopped salad, which Bob had raved about on our previous visit, didn't even look the same this time. It was lukewarm instead of icy, and someone in the kitchen had poured on way too much dressing. Ditto for David Wayne's gloppy Caesar, which had enough dressing for half the dining room.
Happily, his dinner, a plate of tender buffalo short ribs and a bubbling side of creamed spinach, put him back in a celebratory mood. And Bob gave high marks to a superbly grilled 10-ounce filet. I made a bad choice, however, with the pecan-crusted crab cakes. The server said I would love them, and I suppose I might have -- especially because they were nearly as big as hockey pucks -- but they'd been fried so savagely that cutting through the tough exterior was like hacking through linoleum. The soft crabmeat underneath the tough shell was delicious, but tragically, I had to give up after a couple of bites.
The dessert tray near the front of the dining room might have been more of a temptation -- showing off a chocolate-fondue pot with fruits and pastries to dip into, a big cappuccino cup stuffed with Key lime pie, and a giant slab of cheesecake drizzled with strawberry sauce -- if its reproductions had been less obvious. We sampled the cheesecake and found it as bland as it was thick.
Maybe that was a clue to what's missing from The Lodge. Its menu of mostly neoclassic comfort food is solid and served in generous portions, but it's not particularly exciting. In such a dramatic setting, it would be nice to have a little more pizzazz on the plate.