Sunday, February 8, 2009

Dining Out - Daryl Wine Bar & Restaurant

Yesterday was my husband's and my 5th wedding anniversary, and as has been our annual tradition, we went out to a nice (read: pricey) area restaurant to celebrate. The little one stays home with her Grandma and Grandpa, who keep her well occupied while Mommy and Daddy have some much needed adult time.

This year, we tried Daryl Wine Bar & Restaurant in New Brunswick, NJ. It was very well reviewed in the NY Times, so we thought we'd give it a go.

No, no, no. Please don't go! Ms. Cook, the NY Times reviewer, had no business giving this restaurant a positive review. I was mostly underwhelmed by the food, but some of it was so awful that I could not eat it. Now, the review we read was over a year old, so maybe things have changed a bit. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt there. Still, could the food have gone from fabulous to forgettable in that short a time?

I'll take the restaurant element by element, as Ms. Cook did. Upon entering, my initial impression was that the restaurant is going for snooty chic. That's not really my thing. I don't want to feel like eating in a particular place means that I'm an elitist. The ambiance was neither romantic nor business-appropriate. The decor, which is spare, steely-looking and cold, along with the focus on the bar, suggest that they are looking to attract young, Wall Street types (apologies to my brother who happens to fall in this category, technically speaking) with nothing but BS to spew. Now, since the restaurant is nowhere near Wall Street, that crowd was entirely absent. Instead, there was an eclectic mix of ages, occupations, social stations, etc, much like you might see at a Friday's. This did not appear to be a clientele best described as discerning. OK, so now I'm really sounding like an elitist!

Maybe the lack of distinguished palates led Mr. Drake, the chef, to be unconcerned with the quality of product that left his kitchen. Maybe Mr. Drake is spending too much time at his other restaurants and isn't babysitting this one enough. Or maybe he just called in sick yesterday. Who knows? Whatever the problem in the kitchen, the food was certainly lacking for a restaurant where a dinner for two costs more than my weekly grocery bill.

All of the dishes on the menu are said to be small plates. The wait staff encourage you to order 2 of the smaller small plates and one larger small plate for each diner. And the plates are all intended to be shared. The problem is that this is purely a gimmick to make you order more than is necessary. If they followed through with this concept, it might actually make for something interesting. Instead, the small plates were the size of an ordinary appetizer, and the larger small plates were the size of an entree. The truth of the matter is that two small plates OR one large plate would have been sufficient to fill most stomachs, even American ones. I truly resent being misled just for profit's sake. This was not the unique dining experience they described. They simply used different names to describe the same things, much like Starbucks did with their drink sizes.

The dishes were also not presented in a such a way that sharing was always easy. These were not served in true family style fashion, but rather plated as if a single person were going to eat the whole thing. Sure, you could share, but you might also make a mess in doing so, and once it got to your plate, the look of it would be more take out and less fine dining. The bottom line is that they need to lose the gimmicks and get back to making good food.

It also struck me as odd that there were no specials to be had. What self-respecting chef doesn't have something interesting they'd like to showcase based on the day's market? That showed me that this was a place run on routine, not innovation and drama, and I personally think that routine is not generally worth steep prices.

We ordered 3 small plates and two large ones, thinking that was a conservative move. Not so much. I had wanted to try the octopus salad, but it was not available that evening. Instead, we started with a cheese plate. A soft goat cheese was made in house, and was actually fairly good. The other cheeses ranged from boring to somewhat tasty. Still, for 18 bucks, those 6 or 7 small slices of cheese ought to have had my tongue dancing!

Next, we had their brandade fritters and the crispy duck leg confit. The fritters, which were essentially salt cod that was battered heavily and deep fried, were absolutely flavorless. They reminded me of frozen fish sticks, although somewhat lighter in texture. They were horribly under-seasoned, as was the red pepper sauce that they sat in. I was only able to discern flavor from the sauce when tasting it without the fritter, and even then its taste was barely noticeable.

The crispy duck leg confit was the highlight of the evening, and was actually quite enjoyable. The salad of julienned granny smith apples and greens paired very well with the duck. The skin was rendered very well and provided some nice texture contrast. The duck was a bit on the salty side, even for a confit, but I found that forgivable in this dish.

Our two large plates were the pan seared arctic char and the braised short ribs. We had asked the waitress for a suggestion between the short ribs and the ribeye, and she suggested the short ribs. She said that we can get a steak anywhere (not a good one!), and the way they make their short ribs is particularly flavorful. Hmmmm. The short ribs were fine, not fabulous. We had made our own short ribs last summer when we had a bbq. I think ours were more flavorful, and that was my first time cooking short ribs. Although the ribs were tender, they were not terribly juicy. Probably the biggest problem with these ribs is that they were boneless. I can't imagine why anyone would make a slow-cooking meat off the bone. The plate had four ribs, and I only ate one. There was also a quinoa and root vegetable combination laying beneath the ribs, which I quite enjoyed. The quinoa was done well and was flavorful. The only root vegetable I noticed was potato, and unfortunately, the chunks of potato were large enough to be distracting and out of place mixed in with the quinoa. Quinoa really lends itself more to finely diced vegetables, and I don't think potatoes are the best pair for it.

The arctic char was inedible. I ate a few bites and couldn't take it anymore. It was somewhat overcooked, and incredibly over-salted. Yuck! The mashed potatoes and capers that accompanied it were tasty, but didn't go at all with the fish. The roasted red peppers that accompanied the fish added color, but the flavor also seemed out of place.

We also ordered a side order of vegetables romesco, which the waitress described as roasted root vegetables in tomato sauce. We liked the romesco quite a lot, but the waitress needs a bit of a lesson in root vegetables. Eggplant, the main vegetable in the dish, is not a root vegetable. And the presence of tomato sauce was very subtle and thin, which was a good thing. I was actually a bit put off when it was described because of the tomato sauce, but that turned out to be a non-issue.

We ended the evening with some coffee and dessert. I had originally wanted herbal tea, but the waitress said they did not have any, except green tea. Yes, I explained to her that green tea is not herbal, and that it is in fact a form of black tea. There were a few teas on the menu that sounded like they were herbal to me, but she insisted that they were not. My husband had plain black coffee, and seemed unscathed by it. I had a reasonable decaf cappuccino, but it was served in a bizarre cup that was difficult to hold.

The desserts were an assortment of ice creams and sorbets and a peanut butter mouse with chocolate glaze and raspberry sauce. The desserts were actually quite good, but the "assortment" of ice creams were a little silly. Of the four scoops, two of them were vanilla. Did the chef neglect to make a fourth option? There was only one sorbet, which was clearly lime or key lime, but the waitress said it was lemon. Hmmm.

The wait staff were very polite and cordial, and they were certainly attentive, which is a good thing. Clearly, they need better lessons in the foods they are serving. My waitress spoke with great confidence about the food, but more often than not, her descriptions were inaccurate or misleading. That's a real problem in a pricey restaurant. Who wants to pay nearly $30 for a dish, only to have it taste nothing like it was described?

There were some enjoyable elements at Daryl's, but it was so hit and miss that I just couldn't recommend going there. Perhaps I wouldn't mind so much if the prices were more in line with the quality, but they're not, so I do. At the very least, the kitchen staff needs a refresher in seasoning, and maybe the chef himself needs to brush up also.

For those interested in how this experience figures into our family food budget, it doesn't. This is our anniversary gift to one another. We don't eat out often, but when we do, it's usually for a special occasion, and it's often pricey. It's one of the luxuries we allow ourselves, since food is really an interest for both of us beyond the obvious appetite satisfaction. It's akin to the way some regard art or sports. It would also blow through a week and a half of our food budget in one fell swoop, and I'm not sure we could recover from that kind of excess.

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