Two people walk into this bar and grill on a Monday night. They sit down and see this big sign — a poster, really — on the wall that lists the weekly specials. In plain English are these words: "Every Monday, 1-pound crab legs, potatoes and corn $12.99." The two people say to each other, "Well, that's a nice deal." Then they notice that there's a four-color monthly calendar on the table, which also lists all the specials, including the crab legs. And there's a cute little table tent next to the calendar, which also touts the crab-legs special.
What do you think the server says when they ask about the Monday-night special? That's right, she gets all wide-eyed and confused and says, "Crab legs? We don't serve crab legs. We've never had crab legs, and we don't have them now."
Now, luckily for the beautiful, tattooed waitress at the seven-month-old Infused Restaurant & Bar in Shawnee, I thought her answer was so hilarious that I almost fell off my chair laughing. But if I'd brought along a couple of my more volatile friends — who don't have a sense of humor when they're hungry — and they had wanted those frigging $12.99 crab legs, the scene could have been really ugly. And all the fruity cocktails in the world wouldn't have made the situation any better.
Carol Ann, my companion that night, agreed that it was all very funny. And after several sips from a potent martini made with lemongrass-infused vodka, she decided her mantra for the week would be "Crab legs? What crab legs?"
"It's a ploy to lure people into this restaurant," she whispered across the table.
"You don't need to whisper," I told her. "We're the only people here."
Monday nights are kind of slow at Infused, the waitress later told us. When Carol Ann and I first walked in, only two other tables were occupied, both with young couples and their little children. They ate pretty quickly, paid their bills and left looking satisfied. "Kids eat free on Monday nights," explained Rachel, the server.
"The next time I come here, I'm bringing children," Carol Ann said.
I looked over the list of starters — standard bar fare with a "Caribbean twist." The dining room is done in a tropical theme, with sunny lemon walls bedecked with little surfboards, inflatable flip-flops, whirling ceiling fans, and a thatched roof in one corner. If the music system played some reggae instead of Top 40 hits from the 1980s, one might even pretend — for just the teensiest second — that one was on a faraway island instead of in a forlorn strip mall in western Shawnee.
The island spinach dip, we were told, was just like regular spinach dip (artichokes, cheeses, chopped spinach) but featured "a touch of island spice." I was afraid to ask what that was, but I did inquire about the intriguing-sounding Infused poppers. "What are they infused with?" I asked Rachel.
"Cream cheese," she said.
Oh, yes, that made sense. Rachel steered us away from the freshly baked bread bowl filled with beer-infused cheese dip. "It's good but it's made with American cheese, which I don't like," she confided. All the beer in Milwaukee can't change the rubbery taste of American cheese for me, so I decided to pass on the bread bowl. Infused does offer jumbo wings and jumbo chicken tenders for $1.25 each, tossed in one of eight different sauces. Carol Ann and I decided to try a few tenders in island mango sauce.
They were jumbo, all right — hunks of juicy breast meat heavily armored in a crunchy crust and doused in a sweet, translucent concoction that had a punchy habañero kick to it. They were quite good, so we had high hopes for dinner. And, to my relief, the kitchen crew put out a decent product when they had all the ingredients. The calypso pasta, for example, featured roasted vegetables, shrimp and sea scallops in a soothing sauce. But that night, the sea scallops were evidently in the same lost shipment as the crab legs, so the chef tossed in a few extra shrimp for Carol Ann.
I bypassed the Infused burger and the braised chicken flatbread to sample the Barbados barbecue sandwich, a grilled chicken breast glazed with "island sauce," topped with pulled pork and a spoonful of melted cheese. (Rachel had assured me that the cheese was Cheddar.) It was fair, as far as barbecue sandwiches go, but nothing spectacular.
What was sort of spectacular here was on the other side of the restaurant, the cool, dimly lit bar side, where a long back shelf boasted dozens of large clear-glass infusion jars brimming with fresh fruit and booze — infusions of honey bourbon, blue-cheese vodka, lime tequila, orange rum and many others
I returned on a slightly busier Friday night with Nadia and Bob. In the bar, a cover band was onstage playing big hits from the 1990s. (I noticed that they slipped in a Cat Stevens song.) And, once again, the dining room was mostly populated with young families. "Who else lives in Shawnee? It's a suburb!" Bob said as he dipped a house-made tortilla chip into "fresh salsa" that was fiery but tasted bottled to me. I stayed busy with an order of coconut shrimp — sweet, crispy, too chewy.
Out of only five dinner entrées on the menu, Bob, of course, opted for the 10-ounce Kansas City strip. It was a bargain at $15 because it included garlic toast (made without any discernible garlic), a side salad and garlic mashers. "It's the smallest 10-ounce strip I've ever seen," Bob said, cutting into it and discovering that it had been grilled medium-well instead of medium-rare as he requested. "It's the kind of steak they serve at Ponderosa," he said.
The kitchen also had trouble with the steak tips in my bowl of beef stroganoff, which I'd ordered because it was such on oddball choice on the tropical menu. The meat had been cooked to the point that it was tough and leathery, not helped at all by the pallid brown gravy or the fettuccine.
Nadia loved her Cuban sandwich, though. It was pretty darn close to the traditional version, with shredded pork, ham, pickles, melted Swiss cheese and mustard — in this case, a slightly sweet red-pepper Dijon.
We were too full to consider dessert, although the Key lime pie served with mojito-infused syrup sounded enticing.
As we were leaving, Bob picked up one of the single-page monthly calendars. "Hey, on Monday nights, they have a crab-legs special," he said.
"Well, they say they do," I said. It's easy to be confused at Infused, but I was mostly bemused. And fed quite well, so what the hell.
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