It was the onion rings that made my head spin. Big, thick bangles of luscious, juicy onion rings drenched in a light batter and fried to a crispy, golden brown. Less than an hour earlier, I had been reading a best-selling diet book that preached, rather severely, against the artery-clogging evils of such fattening fried foods. But at the Red Vine (located next door to the former Barker Temple Church), the best way to overcome temptation was to succumb to it. A bit of dietary indulgence might not be a bad thing.
Besides, little sins unfortunately abound at this restaurant.
That includes the sin of omission. The menu promised that those fabulous onion rings would be accompanied by "a fire-roasted cheddar sauce for dipping." Ours arrived with a bottle of ketchup. And although dinner entrées were supposed to include side salads, we practically had to beg for those greens on my first visit. On the second visit, we just gave up.
"Yes, dinners come with salads," explained our server, "but you have to request them."
Huh? On that first visit, with Bob and Gia, we had arrived early and settled into one of the banquettes in the wine-colored room for an evening that started off well. The server brought out a basket of warm, pepper-flecked corn muffins and suggested the blackened-alligator appetizer. "People just love it," she said.
Count me as one of the few who don't. The skewers of plump gator chunks arrived with a tiny dish of sticky molasses barbecue sauce -- heavy on the molasses -- and for every bite-sized morsel that was tender, another was so tough and chewy that it was easier to spit it out than to swallow it.
This was the night that we remembered to request salads, which were standard-issue iceberg creations. While we picked at them, a gentleman began setting up a karaoke machine on the stage. "We have entertainment of some kind almost every night," our waitress explained as she brought out our dinners. "On Mondays we have poetry readings, and on Fridays and Saturdays we have live music."
But the real drama must have been in the kitchen instead of onstage, because the prime rib that Gia ordered was clearly in disguise. This "rib" looked nothing like what the menu had described ("Thick-cut prime rib, slow-smoked then blackened in a cast-iron skillet"); moreover, it didn't look like any slice of beef, prime or otherwise, I had ever seen. In fact, when our server first placed it in front of Gia, I would have sworn it was a pancake!
"Well, it is spicy," Gia said brightly after taking a taste. "But it's too thin and too fatty."
I snagged a bite and confirmed that it was indeed beef, but that was the only thing I could positively identify about it. On the other hand (hind?), Bob's slab of Kansas City strip really was thick, juicy, tender and perfectly cooked. The jambalaya I ordered was thick with chicken and smoked sausage, but the rice was far too dry.
"It's such a pretty dining room," Gia said wistfully. "I wish the food was better."
It is an attractive dining room, with concrete floors stained the color of sweet-potato pie, shimmery metallic window shears and burgundy velvet curtains. Tabletops are shiny, black granite, and the bar boasts sexy, illuminated, cherry-red panels.
The Red Vine has a lot of promise, and you want it to succeed even when things go awry. The restaurant's owner, Sebrina McCrainey, later assured me that entrées do include salads and that her staff should have known that. "We're still in the process of training everyone," she told me. "Getting experienced people to work at a start-up restaurant has been hard." She also explained that the prime rib looks oddly flat because it's served boneless "so customers ordering the 8-ounce cut aren't getting 6 ounces of meat and 2 ounces of bone." Good argument, but I'd stop calling it prime rib.
McCrainey, who worked in the information-technology field before diving into the restaurant business, hired veteran restaurant manager Brett Bagley (formerly of Remington's and Hops Brewery) to run the place. Unlike some newer chain restaurants, where service can be downright incompetent, the problem at Red Vine isn't with customer relations but in the lack of timing between the kitchen and the dining room. And too few eyes are watching too many tables.
I sat in the bar for my second meal, with Ned and Bob. There was a good crowd in the dining room -- rich, poor, young, old, white and black -- and the mood was upbeat, even if once again the kitchen wasn't working on all cylinders. For one thing, our harried waitress confessed that two of her fellow servers had called in sick, leaving her to work the whole dining room alone.
"I walked in at 5 p.m., and twenty people followed me through the front door," she said.
She pulled off this early rush with finesse, barking orders to the busboys and the hostess and keeping her cool and her sense of humor. Ned and Bob, fortified by hearty glasses of Fetzer Chardonnay, found the whole experience (including the missing salads) somewhat amusing. Ned was slightly miffed that the kitchen hadn't made up any of the knot rolls listed on the menu, but he buttered a corn muffin instead and distracted himself by sizing up the dining room, which had a good crowd but, with only one waitress, a slightly chaotic vibe.
Ned's saffron-colored crawfish étouffée was loaded with juicy crawfish tails, but Bob's blackened-chicken Alfredo was lukewarm by the time it arrived at the table. I got that night's clinker dish, the special du jour of beef stew served over rice. The cubes of beef were practically petrified, plunked in a soupy broth of rice, chopped tomatoes, celery and potatoes.
Desserts, which are McCrainey's specialty, are more comforting, especially an excellent sweet-potato cheesecake and the fudgy Double Trouble Chocolate Layer Cake. But she needs to take a second look at how her white-chocolate bread pudding is coming out of the kitchen. It wasn't the traditional fluffy, spongy consistency of freshly made bread pudding; made with sourdough bread instead, it tasted like a stale sweet roll that had been sliced in half, swathed in sugary syrup and shoved in the microwave.
It was a Monday night, so Ned asked the server when the poetry readings were supposed to start. "Oh, we've canceled those," she said, lowering her voice. "It started out nice, but then some of the poets started using vulgar words. Four-letter words."
"Poetry night is on hiatus," manager Bagley confirmed to me later. "We were not pleased with some of the content."
I understand that. Sometimes it's difficult to effectively verbalize disappointment. When Bagley asked if I had enjoyed my dinner, I just smiled sweetly. It's a sin to tell a lie.