Reflecting over the last year, I'm mulling over a handful of wonderful food memories: sinking my teeth into a perfectly cooked cheeseburger, its hot, meaty juices soaked up by a soft, sweet-smelling bun; enjoying the brightness of ripe vegetables in a refreshing seasonal salad; taking a giant bite of creamy, buttery mashed potatoes. Tasting a sublime piece of sushi or indulging in sizzling carne asada also come to mind. And how could I forget noshing on a good tuna melt? I smile at the thought.
Sometimes, dining really is pure bliss, a delicious moment that almost startles me with heady aromas, potent flavors, and seductive textures. A simple eating experience can even be life-altering.
I dream about such things, but reality doesn't always match up. Such was the case throughout several visits to a new downtown eatery called Bliss, where the all-over-the-map menu juxtaposes chicken lettuce wraps with mac 'n' cheese, and tacos with pot roast. If you're going to name a restaurant after a state of utter happiness, you'd better go to great lengths to live up to such standards.
Michele Laudig's Cafe
901 North Fourth Street
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Friday
10 a.m. to midnight Saturday and Sunday Chicken lettuce wraps: $7.50
Cobb salad: $9.50
Soft tacos: $9
Pork chop dinner: $15
Even one standout dish would help — something scrumptious and distinctive that gives customers uncontrollable cravings and inspires repeat visits. How about a kickass burger, since you've already named it the Bliss Burger? The one I tried was middle of the road, at best, even topped with cheese sauce and bacon. There was nothing special about the flimsy bun, and the greasy beef patty didn't taste like much. A Quarter Pounder would've been more satisfying.
In the case of this restaurant, one of the best things I tried was a grilled chicken sandwich topped with pepper jack and bacon — and by "best," I really mean "satisfactory." It was succulent, slathered with barbecue sauce, and tucked into a sturdy pretzel bun that was the only thing distinguishing it from any old chicken sandwich anywhere. Instead of sending me into a state of bliss, it merely warded off my hunger.
It doesn't make sense, really. With their hospitality and customer service backgrounds, co-owners Mark Howard, Jackson Kelly, and Kevin Kelly should have downtown dining dialed in. Executive chef John Cook — who created the menu here — also leads the kitchen at Fez (a restaurant I really dig, where Howard is a co-owner), while recently appointed chef de cuisine Eric Gitenstein (former chef of now-defunct Lola Tapas) also runs the MF Tasty Secret Supper Club. From the looks of the menu, Gitenstein hasn't changed up anything since he came on board.
If I'd never been here, but heard about the Fez and Lola connections, I'd assume Bliss was destined for greatness. There's no reason it shouldn't be. But unless somebody steps it up here, Bliss could become a short-lived casualty just like its predecessor, Nine 05. (Actually, eating at Bliss made me really miss Nine 05's red miso brisket crepes. If you'd ever been there, or, for that matter, to Fate before that, then you won't be surprised to learn that Bliss keeps the same spare look, with exposed brick walls, sleek furniture, and an open kitchen.)
Even if nothing changes, mind you, Bliss might still coast for a while on the success of its next-door sibling, a high-energy hangout called ReBAR. Both places share an excellent front patio (Bliss has plenty of outdoor seating, with heat lamps), and ReBAR's mushroom-shaped outdoor bar has become a regular watering hole for a good-looking, mostly gay crowd of young professionals and hipsters.
Finally — a place that brings Roosevelt Row to life on a night that's not First or Third Friday! On that front, it's great. I'd definitely come back for a cocktail or a beer (although not a watered-down, too-tart sangria). But when it comes to the food at Bliss, I'd feel more excited about it if I got drunk at ReBAR first.
P.F. Chang's might make a mint on its chicken lettuce wraps, but Bliss's version didn't impress me. The mix of sautéed broccolini, carrots, and walnuts was so salty I could hardly taste vegetables, and so drenched in watery sauce that it made quite a mess when my friend and I attempted to fashion our own wraps. Is drippy lettuce anyone's idea of a good time? Doubtful.
Sea salt and vinegar shoestring fries would've been a more palatable appetizer, if only they'd come out hot and crispy instead of lukewarm and dull. Meanwhile, cheese nachos, laden with diced tomatoes, shredded red cabbage, and jalapenos, were passable. A spinach Cobb salad with bacon, egg, and tomato served as a leafy green bed for a dry piece of grilled chicken.
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At least my chicken sandwich was well-prepared, as was a BLT sandwich bolstered with tempura shrimp and soft avocado. I had no complaints about the mac 'n' cheese sprinkled with red chile flakes, either. But chicken soft tacos were as bland as institutional food, and as soon as they started to cool, their tortillas quickly became brittle.
Chunky, cinnamon-scented tomato sauce made the double-cut pork chop interesting, and I liked the taste of the potatoes au gratin on the side. But even though the thinly sliced spuds were browned on top, they were still close to raw.
And, despite the name, Mama's Pot Roast Dinner was not a flattering tribute to anyone's mother. The huge chunk of slow-cooked beef, nestled in a heap of mashed cauliflower, turned out to be more than half fat. I was hungry enough to carefully dissect a few bites of meat from it but soon lost my appetite entirely.
Sorry to say, Bliss was a miss. I'll be drowning my tears in a beer at ReBAR.