DFD can still work, and still be highly entertaining, with a little patience. For the best success, I'd suggest bringing a large group of, say, six, to share and taste virtually everything on Barmouche's menu. That way, when a dish doesn't work, we can wrinkle our noses, then move on to something better without feeling ripped off.
It's entirely appropriate that, at one evening's dinner, my group is just as messed up as the restaurant. One guest shows up late, and promptly catapults over the step to our raised seating area. Our server greets us, then disappears for 15 minutes before coming back for our wine order. As soon as the beverage is delivered, another one of my guests tips the glass onto his white shirt, then locks himself in the rest room for 10 minutes trying to wash the red stain out. Halfway through the meal, I nearly drop a whole plate of fish onto the floor. We have to ask repeatedly for fresh silverware and for new personal plates between courses. When dessert arrives, one of my guests promptly spills an entire lemon custard flat into his lap.
Appetizers showcase how good Barmouche can be. I scramble to get my fair share of a dynamite tomato-mozzarella salad, an impressive layering of creamy-firm homemade cheese and fruit that's much juicer and flavorful than what I can find in my supermarket. My mother (what's dysfunctional dining without Mom?) marvels over the crab cakes, because they're made with tons of actual seafood and only a bit of cracker crumbs, two moist lumps atop warm spinach and slicked with whole grain mustard sauce. Laitue salad (French for lettuce) brings organic butter lettuce with zingy Roquefort-walnut dressing topped with real walnuts. And the only thing that could make a classic caesar better than this one would be the addition of anchovies; the dressing is first-rate and it's capped with a thin, crisp Parmesan cracker.
I'd pass on the bruschetta, though, an ordinary attempt of diced tomato, onion and basil with too much balsamic on crusty crostini. Shrimp cocktail gets quickly forgotten, too, just basic seafood in a martini glass dunked with so-so cocktail sauce.
Entrees are the most schizo. With some things, like veal meatloaf, baked with shiitake mushroom gravy and a potato scallion cake, Tarbell's talents shine through. The Southern-style fried chicken is soul-satisfying, with country gravy and a Cheddar biscuit. My group fights over one evening's special, a superb herb-crusted California sea bass, drizzled in lemon thyme sauce alongside steamed broccoli and charred tomato rice pilaf. The fish is expertly cooked, firm and juicy, in a crunchy light coating.
Other dishes have us wondering, where have all the flavors gone? A massive casserole of sausage lasagna tastes like it was frozen, wet and flat. It's creamy with lots of cheese and packed with meat, but it's more appealing on the eyes than the tongue. Mom thinks there's something wrong with her palate, after exclaiming over the visual beauty of a flat iron steak. It shows up looking absolutely decadent, sliced in rich-colored ruby red. But Mom's right, it does taste of nothing, splayed across some nice grilled asparagus and a wad of au gratin potatoes.
Sides seesaw, as well. Blue Lake green beans are a winner, exquisitely buttery and crisp. But then things fall apart with macaroni and cheese, an overly aggressive recipe of salt and aged Vermont Cheddar for a result that's tart, quite sharp and dry under baked blanket of breadcrumbs (on another visit, the mac is marvelous, so go figure).
I wonder if we could do DFD with just desserts, since there's never a loser in this group. They're all homemade, with clever confections like ice cream sandwiches, and an old-fashioned banana split. Sweet orange custard has us licking our spoons, dolloped in a thin lemon tuile with whipped cream (our server takes pity on our clumsiness and brings us another after we deposit it on the carpet). I love a hot strawberry-rhubarb cobbler served in a casserole with vanilla ice cream, coffee cake topping. And chocolate banana bread pudding, like a warm fudge cake topped with sliced bananas, is so compelling I convince the server to break his leftovers rule.
I have to admit that I appreciate the irony -- though I'm sure Tarbell won't -- that the eatery has introduced this "dysfunctional family dining" thing. This is the perfect example of Barmouche's unstable personality, in an all-you-can-eat format: Food is erratic, service can be surprising, and we're never sure if the night will be wonderful -- or woeful.