The classic rock jams filtering through the stereo system at the Yard House in Desert Ridge are hand-picked at the corp's Irvine HQ by none other than The Founder himself, Steele Platt, whom I imagine as a dead ringer for The Architect in The Matrix Reloaded. Dressed in white, with gray beard, he massages the minds of the masses with such hoary hits as Elton John's "Rocket Man" and Donovan's "Season of the Witch," while a sea of plasma TVs that'll rival anything you'll see at Best Buy diverts the attention of diners from the simple fact that the stuff on their plates is only a step or two above the fare at T.G.I. Friday's.
Rather than, say, the sleepy sounds of Gary Wright crooning "Dream Weaver," while the Barrett-Jackson auction, a basketball game or National Geographic's Dog Whisperer show is flickering on the flat screens overhead, what this spot needs is a little dose of Fear. Specifically, the '80s punk band Fear, with lead singer Lee Ving standing on the bar, stripped to the waist, wailing like a demented demon to a crowd of frothing heathens that timeless Fear refrain, "More beer, more beer/All I want is more beer." Throw in a mosh pit of punch-happy vandals, marauding and pillaging as Ving sings, and this big, banal box of an eatery might actually be worth saving.
The chief attraction at the Yard House is its gleaming, rectangular bar with up to 130 beers on tap, all piped in from a keg room near the entrance, through a network of plastic tubing and exposed chrome cylinders, to spigots spitting suds for your consumption. It's hard to argue with the selection of brews, and I won't attempt as much. Here sits the cornerstone of the Yard House's prosperity, with 12 outlets nationwide, if you include the one set to open at Scottsdale Fashion Square this January 29, and more on the way. YH keeps building them, and the lemmings keep lapping it up.
Despite all the yeast-inspired potables, it's unlikely our hero Mr. Ving would approve of the California chain. One look at the yupper-middle-class peeps waiting for a table on any night of the week, and I suspect he'd cop a line from Harry Dean Stanton in that flick Repo Man, where Stanton sneers, "Ordinary fucking people, I hate 'em." The Yard House's menu is an immense grab-bag proffering everything from moo shu egg rolls and Buffalo wings to chicken enchiladas and porcini crusted halibut. This food-court mentality results in little that's truly horrid. And on rare occasions, there might even be something exceptional, kinda like finding a tiny emerald in a stack of hay.
You're never in doubt as to the Yard House's primary mission: turning over each table as many times as possible in one night with maximum efficiency. To this end, the service is quick and obliging, like a high-end version of a fast-food operation. Platters are whisked away from the counter over at the long, open kitchen as soon as they are set down. Glasses are filled as soon as they're drained. There's no lollygagging here, and I'll be honest that I'm in awe of the whip-cracking discipline at work, even if in many cases I'd rather not eat the edible widgets this great industrial machine is pumping out.
To start with the starters, take the fried calamari, with the too-thick breading overwhelming the squid, or the gross excess of the onion ring tower, stacked on a pole with a jaunty sprig of rosemary stuck at the top. Beer-battered and sprinkled with Parmesan, I'm sure these cloying onion rings are a crowd-pleaser, though after the third one, I started feeling a little queasy from the grease. The French onion soup was too sweet, and not very flavorful. And the "California roll" was a colossal failure in execution, though I liked the concept: crafted like a terrine instead of a maki roll, with a layer of diced cucumber, tuna, and tobiko (flying fish roe), topped with avocado slivers, over rice. What killed it? The rice was not freshly made. This edible hockey puck had been prepared much earlier and thrust in the refrigerator, thus the rice was clumped together and dry. Wholly unappetizing.
Yet kudos are due for the seared ahi and for the blue crab cakes. In both cases, the servings are somewhat small, but taste makes up for that. The ahi was ruby red and scrumptious, and I was happy to eat the crab cakes, though you get just two. Their insides were moist, exteriors crisp, and the mango-papaya chutney and passion fruit beurre blanc that came with them rich and slurpingly good on their own.
So it went with everything else I tried. For every item I cared for, there were two or three I'd never return to consume. The "Cuban roast pork dip" is YH's stab at a Cubano, sort of a gustatory reprise of the Kennedy administration's Bay of Pigs debacle. The pork was too dry, the bread of middling quality. They bring you a lot with the fish and chips, but you don't really want to finish it. The shoestring fries are right out of the bag, and the batter on the cod so thick and tasteless that I kept peeling it off. Too bad I did, because the cod on its own had that just-pulled-from-the-freezer taste to it.
The linguini with clams in the shell was adequate. At least none of the bivalves were closed when brought to me, which is saying something in this town. And though the ginger crusted salmon looked over-the-top, with its mass of fried carrot strings and wasabi mashed potatoes, it was quite literally the emerald in the haystack. An engrossing plate, and one of the few I'd have again.
I despised the crème brûlée, mainly because it was closer to a vanilla pudding in texture than a custard. And the lemon soufflé cake? More cake than soufflé: "Half-baked," they call it, and a worthier adjective I cannot find. Only the draft beer floats, with vanilla ice cream in either Young's Chocolate Stout or Lindemans Framboise, did anything for me, and those I could make at home. I don't have much reason to dally in Desert Ridge, and the Yard House doesn't change anything. But then, YH doesn't really need my endorsement, any more than does the Macaroni Grill, Bahama Breeze or the Olive Garden. It's a cash cow with the culinary common denominator on its side.
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