Nov 23, 2009

R Bar Has Ups and Downs

It's not often that I'm as excited about a restaurant opening as I was when I heard about R Bar. Few people seem to have heard of it so far. It's hidden down in the west bottoms across from the Golden Ox, near Kemper; an area I'm hoping will become revived in a more soulful way than was P&L.

Stoking my excitement, owner Joy Jacobs brought in Alex Pope, former Executive Sous Chef from The American, one of this area's most heralded restaurants, to run the kitchen. I'd been to The American and found some of the high-end menu's items to be rather unsuccessful (like a horrendously salty pumpkin gelee), but others to be exciting and decadent.

What I found at R Bar was a promising, but somewhat perplexing restaurant, showing some of the service issues that new restaurants almost always do. I left R Bar utterly conflicted about how to rate and describe it to others.

From the building's outdoor facade to the inside's decor, it was everything, visually, I was hoping it would be. Cozy, rustic, and a little Western in personality. Fitting, considering the West Bottoms' heritage as a massive, successful cattle stockyard in the late 1800's and early 1900's. The interior was designed by the same designer who put together one of my favorite bars in town - Harry's Country Club in the River Market. If you know Harry's, which looks like Johnny Cash as a bar, R Bar is more like Johnny Cash shaking hands with Cary Grant; Western-meets-early rock n roll, with an added dash of class.

The floors are hard wood and that old hexagonal white tile that has so much character. A beautiful, huge wood bar is offset with shiny bottles and mirrors that sparkle in the otherwise low-lit room. The star of the decor, though, is the giant metal letter R on the North wall, lit with small bulbs. A cool touch which, conincidentally, reminds me of my first apartment - a loft in the River Market - because very similarly, I had a giant letter N on my exposed brick wall. I'd found it at the Asner scrapyard there in the bottoms, and lined it with Christmas lights (wonder if that's where the R came from). For sentimental reasons, R Bar gains a half-napkin upgrade with that feature alone, whether fair or not.

If intimacy is critical to your dining experience, there are four booths in the back of the restaurant you may like. Otherwise, you're out of luck, because 95% of the rest of the seats are the bar and the tables that run along the north wall, where diners sit elbow-to-elbow and sharing conversation is common. Twice during our dinner we chatted with our friendly neighbors about the food but were then annoyed that we couldn't tune them out as they blathered about everyone they knew and exactly how much money they had and where they got it.

Having underestimated R Bar's popularity, we unwisely arrived with no reservation, and after a brief wait were lucky to grab two open seats at the bar. The drink menu is martini-heavy. Not being a big fan of martinis, but wanting to experience one of their signature drinks, I ordered the Corpse Reviver No. 2. The fact that I was still a little hung over from festivities the night before may have led me to this cocktail made with gin, cointreau, lillet blonde, fresh lemon juice and then a tiny drop of absinthe. It was crisp and citrusy, but I didn't need another.

On to dinner we went. Everything on the menu sounded good and deciding proved a difficult adventure, so we were delighted when the free appetizer was delivered. Not an amuse bouche, but a true starter-sized funnel cake, topped with an orange (from paprika) goat cheese sauce. We heard the materialistic neighbors scoff that it had been lambasted in some local critic's review, but we enjoyed it. Could have stood another 25 seconds in the fryer, as it was a tad too soft, but tasty nonetheless.

A light salad next: romaine with savory, smooth bacon vinaigrette, soft, sweet roasted pears and orange rectangles of crunchy butternut squash. Couldn't have been better. A great start.

Next up was the cassoulet slaw, and that's when things took a weird turn. I know cassoulet to be a classic, hearty French dish of beans and salty meats. I always pictured it being like a French version of pork n beans, classier and more complex in flavor than the simple canned American chow. However, Chef Pope takes some rather unexpected liberties with his interpretation. This dish is 90% slaw and 10% cassoulet... if you can consider a simple bean puree to be cassoulet. The off-white cannellini shmear was topped with the heaviest, most over-dressed slaw I'd ever eaten. Its creamy dressing was a promising sounding truffle creme fraiche, but it overpowered the other flavors involved and was an awful combination with the cannellini bean puree; the two earthy flavors together were muddy. Yuck. Moreover, there was just too much creaminess involved. The creme fraiche turned the cabbage into a globby blob, so the whole composition smacked of regurgitation on the tongue. The sage sausage was barely noticeable, and if there was any confit chicken, it was exceedingly well hidden. Overall, a real stinker of a dish that made me wonder what the chef thought he liked about it.

Wiping the "what the heck was that" look off our faces (and drowning it with some delicious yet inexpensive Leaping Lizard 2007 Chardonnay), we moved on to our entree. A seasonal, plump breast of turkey came presented naked as a baby's bottom on a celery root puree and pad of stuffing, with bay leaf gravy and pickled grapes. The odd look of the plain turkey breast was, if not flat-out gross, confusing. Some parsley or even just the gravy and black pepper over top would have made it more comfortable to look at. I have to admit, though, it was easily the most moist turkey breast I'd ever eaten. I had to use my phone's flash light to inspect the inside to convince myself it wasn't undercooked - and it wasn't - so it was truly delicious.

A square, crusty cake of stuffing lay in the gravy, under the turkey, looking almost like carpet padding, but no one ever said stuffing was supposed to look good. I'm not sure of the cooking method, but I believe the stuffing, once cut into its square slice, was perhaps pan fried. It had a much needed courseness that offset the moist bird and creamy puree and gravy just right.

The star, though, was the celery root puree. I am currently obsessed with the stuff. There's a big hairy celery root sitting in my cupboard right now, waiting for me to locate a good recipe that I think will allow me to produce a similar puree of my own. If you haven't had celery root puree, think of mashed potatoes, but instead of the background flavor being that of, well, dirt - like you get with mashed potatoes - CRP leaves a more complex, cleaner flavor on the palette. It was so good, yet so simple, I was dizzy eating it and screaming , internally, for more. MORE!

A garnish of a few split grapes were necessary for cutting the rich, savory components of the dish, but not as successful as I'd hoped. The fact that they were allegedly "pickled" was silly. Grapes have a tight, non-pourous skin and it didn't seem as though their flavor or texture had been affected by the pickling process at all. They were merely halved grapes that fell short of their duty in the composition.

Our other entree was a more enjoyable mushroom tart - a beautiful crust with cheese filling and dark, caramelized shiitake mushrooms on top. It was wonderfully simple in comparison to the other dishes, making the turkey and cassoulet seem over-thought and silly. Had I eaten salad and this entree, only, I'd have beena little disappointed with the portion, but I suppose it was reasonable. (I'd have needed dessert, though.)

When this meal was over, I was almost relieved. The food was a little too much of a roller coaster for me that night, but with such a fantastic vibe, had I not already done so much partying that weekend I could have sat there for another hour and half, splitting a second bottle of wine and enjoying the live music and  atmosphere.

Given the pedigree of the chef and the fun ingredients used throughout the menu, I'm actually eager to return to R Bar. It may have a couple bombs on its menu now, but I think there's some greatness there, too. And I want to see what the spring menu will entail.

But for now, I'll have to think of it as a three napkin restaurant with a two napkin rating, because the fantastic atmosphere fell victim to that god-awful cassoulet mess. I hope Chef Pope keeps editing.

Rating: two napkins

R Bar and Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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