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Well, whack me over the head with a lamb chop. Just when I think I've seen everything possible on a restaurant menu, something new sneaks up and surprises me. And not because a dish is simply bizarre -- those are unfortunately too frequent -- but because even though something sounds completely inedible, it's actually quite successful.
A recent trip to Maui presented a perfect case in point. Reading the menu for i'o, a Lahaina eatery offering "fresh new Pacific cuisine," actually made me shudder with a beyond-complicated description of a "silken purse" appetizer. Imagine the taste of this on your figurative tongue: steamed tri-color won tons stuffed with roasted peppers, mushrooms, spinach, macadamia nuts and silken tofu in a jalapeño-scented tomato sauce with basil-yogurt purée.
And holy bejeezus, when the dish arrived, it looked as frightening as it sounded, with rainbow-colored pot stickers (neon green, lemon yellow and rhubarb red) on a pool of burnt umber-hued sauce spliced with pale green stripes. Sprinkled around the edges was what looked like paprika charred under the broiler.
602-264-1975. Hours: Breakfast, Monday through Friday, 6 to 11 a.m., Saturday and Sunday, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
But wow. Oh, wow. The first bite was heaven, the last bite ecstasy. Whatever drugs the chef was on when he created this masterpiece should be shared with the public. Somehow, he managed to unite this riot of flavors and funky looks into a sleek symphony.
It was sick curiosity that compelled me to order the dish, yet it reminded me: Sometimes it pays to drop assumption and just take a chance.
So, borrow that mindset and keep it firmly in place when dining at DG's Metropolitan Deli & Grille, located in the former Munch-a-Bagel, and later Arnie's, space. If any place proves that it can't be judged by its cover, this eclectic eatery does.
The owners have been tinkering with this place for months, revamping menus, renovating space and expanding until they finally introduced their concept in October. (And they still can't stop. As of press time, the restaurant was found to be closed temporarily on Mondays for further renovations.) The rough edges show, with a confusing layout that's half casual New York-style deli, and half full-service, leaning-toward-upscale restaurant. In the deli, it's counter service with big display cases full of meats and cheeses; in the restaurant, it's table service from waiters wearing long, black bistro aprons, black pressed pants and crisp white shirts.
The food is even more schizophrenic -- part sub sandwiches, part American comfort food, part Asian-influenced plates and part upscale continental. Diners can take a booth in the deli and order pizza steak, muffulatta or a ham-salad sandwich. Or they can be shown a table in the dining room for choices like beef stroganoff, Thai shrimp salad, kettle-fried turkey or Cajun-rubbed Pacific swordfish with lemon-chive butter, rice pilaf and asparagus.
But wait, there's more. While the deli looks appropriately deli-like, the restaurant is a hybrid of cocktail lounge, retro cafe (including a twirling barbershop pole and a scale to "weigh your fat") and at night, a white-tablecloth experience with dim lights and smoky jazz music.
Yet what else could we expect from a place brave enough to partner on the same menu an offering of Bump City catfish (with wasabi, udon and Asian greens) with a Windy City pork sandwich (cracked pepper-crusted loin, Swiss cheese and chipotle mayo on an onion bun)? Add to this a decidedly average presentation (banquet-hall slop comes to mind) and DG's has disaster written all over it.
Remarkably, though, it all comes together, with many plates deserving return visits. Like my Maui miracle, this is food that prompts me to shut my eyes, cast preconceptions to the wind and just try.
I can't recall ever seeing "chicken-n-dumplins" as an appetizer before, and I know I don't want to see it presented this way again. An itty-bitty crock is perched atop a ridiculously large black charger plate, as if it's an offering of caviar. And it looks like a TV dinner, all beige and gloppy. Yet the stuff tastes great. No kidding -- the coagulated sauce is deep-flavored, stocked with carrot, celery, shards of chicken breast and plump, comfortably heavy dumplings.
Greek salad looks like a mess, too, with sloppy carvings of tomato and cucumber over an enormous, single leaf of spinach. Crumbles of feta cheese and lusty Kalamata olives are great, but the pepperoncini and chopped red bell pepper belong on an antipasto platter. The "Greek" dressing is more oily Italian, but who cares? It's effective on the taste buds.
I can't believe a place that sports orange accent walls adorned with mannequin legs would aspire to offer ahi mignon, but DG's does. As usual, it looks terrible, the fish supernaturally fuchsia, barnacled with charcoal-black peppercorns and plopped on top of spaghetti (not the promised udon, or Japanese noodles, by any creative menu interpretation). And once again, the result is great, the fish firm and sparkling fresh under a coverlet of chopped tomato, onion and radish sprouts. The sauce practically beats its chest in pride, a vibrant, balsamic-rich vinaigrette dotted with chopped tomato and sautéed spinach.
Barbecued beef short ribs are another glamourless creation, but they make up for their lack of beauty with personality. These are tender dinosaur bones, smothered in mild sauce. A side of stockpot vegetables (celery ribs and carrot cooked to Crockpot soft) lend comfort, but the real star is the ordinary-looking bowl of "firehouse" macaroni. It is truly a firehouse of tongue-grabbing spice, the elbow mac studded with kernel corn in a velvety cheese sauce.