Cafe Reviews

Heaven Can Wait

It's not a good thing when a restaurant makes you feel like you're in an airport. Or a cafeteria. Or even worse, an airport cafeteria.

That's exactly how I felt when I visited the two-month-old 7th Heaven Eatery at the Camelback Esplanade. Considering some of its neighbors — sexy, slinky Merc Bar, and expense-account-friendly McCormick and Schmick's — I wasn't surprised to see the place bill itself as "upscale comfort food in a classy yet casual environment." But I also wasn't surprised when reality didn't match up with the press-release hype, as is often the case. Overpriced cafeteria food was more like it.

Tucked amid the office towers and parking garage, in a sprawling corner space that used to house Franco's Italian Caffe, 7th Heaven certainly has the location. Just think of all the captive cubicle dwellers spilling into the Esplanade retail complex over their lunch hour, eager to grab a quick bite with co-workers. And the folks moving into all those luxury high-rises that keep popping up, eager to walk to food. Cha-ching! I don't blame those people for eating here — it's a convenience thing, obviously — but I just can't see anyone else making the effort. It's not worth driving around the garage to find a precious parking spot, and I certainly wouldn't bother to walk here from Biltmore Fashion Park, even if the pedestrian tunnel under Camelback Road was finished.

It's too bad. Somebody clearly dumped a ton of money into this place, only to come up with a Crayola-colored, faux-happy, institutional vibe that doesn't make the food taste any better. I sat with a table full of friends considering other comparisons besides an airport cafeteria — a Disney food court! a pediatrician's office! — and then one guy nailed it: "This feels like we just walked on to the set of Saved by the Bell. "

In other words, 7th Heaven has all the cheesy glory of a late-'80s teen sitcom. But not in a good way.

The restaurant's outdoor patio is pretty innocuous. Inside, it's bright blue swirls everywhere you look, from the floors to the walls. The busy motif is repeated in dizzying turned-metal table tops, and swaths of metal mesh suspended from the ceiling, illuminated with iridescent halogen track lights. Wooden chairs upholstered in blue, green, yellow and orange look like an explosion of Chiclets in the vast, open dining room. A row of flat-screen monitors display the menu above the front counter, which has built-in cases for showing off pastries near each of two entrances. There's a long rack of magazines along one wall, and in the back corner, there's a bar lit up in electric blue.

If it sounds kind of exhausting, well, it is. But it's the menu that really brings "trying too hard" to a whole new level. There are more than 60 items to choose from, and reading through them is an exercise in absurdity. Of course, the place has all kinds of salads and sandwiches and pizzas and burgers. There's an array of breakfast dishes served all day, right alongside all-American dinner fare like meat loaf and macaroni and cheese. Depending on your mood, you could order a glass of wine and some fried calamari, a smoothie and a hummus plate, or a latte and a pastry. Or if you're craving something ethnic, 7th Heaven has linguini, yakisoba, and fajitas.

It's as if the place is trying to be a one-stop shop for any and every possible dining scenario, and that's where it really falls short. Better to have a well-edited menu of well-prepared dishes than to go overboard and achieve mediocrity, at best.

And speaking of mediocrity, where to begin? The Swiss mushroom burger was a generic patty and plain bun, with predictable toppings — better than fast food, but not particularly flavorful or juicy. The only thing that made the veggie burger any different from a run-of-the-mill Gardenburger was the nine-grain ciabatta it was served on, and as far as I could tell, the only thing "upscale" about it was the nine-dollar price. Actually, make that $8.97 — every price on the menu at 7th Heaven ends in the number seven.

According to my sweetie — a Pennsylvania native like me, and a full-on cheese-steak connoisseur — the "Real Deal Philly" sandwich and its side of fries was sadly similar to the $6 steak and fries combo at the Steak Escape, only about three bucks more. I took a few bites and had to agree. A straightforward pile of thinly shaved beef, melted cheese, and grilled onions and peppers on a soft roll, it was neither a disappointment nor a standout.

The orzo salad was a fine mix of cool pasta and fresh spinach with slivered almonds, crumbles of feta, warm slices of chicken, and a drizzle of sweet balsamic dressing. And "Her Sister's Chinese Chicken Salad" was a harmless bowl of chicken strips, won tons, iceberg and romaine lettuce, mandarin oranges, and ginger-tinged Asian dressing. It was hard to find fault with it, but the portion was a total turnoff — there must've been two pounds of food in that bowl. Who wants to feel like a pig at a trough when they're eating a salad? The ginormous cheese crisp we ordered made more sense as a super-sized appetizer, and gratefully, it wasn't greasy.

I should've known better than to order Italian food at a place like this, but you know, being a restaurant critic can be a dare. Sometimes, though, eating more than a few bites can verge on masochism. Such was the case with the Sicilian Arrabiata, a God-awful bowl of mushy rigatoni drowned in tomato sauce that had a straight-from-the-can blandness. Two big sausage links were plopped right in the middle of it, and they certainly didn't redeem the crappy pasta.

As for the all-day breakfast, 7th Heaven was maybe a notch above IHOP. Huevos rancheros were the most interesting option, with cheese, pico de gallo, and a couple of fried eggs atop a big corn pancake instead of the usual tortilla. It came with guacamole and a spoonful of black beans. The mushrooms and broccoli inside a create-your-own omelet were still raw. Our sides of limp whole wheat toast (we didn't get a choice of bread) were cold, and the fried potatoes that came with a few dishes reminded me of overdone tater tots. And then there was the smoked salmon scramble, a blend of eggs, slices of salmon, capers, diced tomatoes, and onions. It sounded good, and in theory, it should've been. What killed it was the capers — probably about 20 of the salty little bastards in every biteful, which negated all the other flavors.

Indeed, looking back at the menu, I found unintentional comedy in this description of the dish, which extends to 7th Heaven Eatery in general: "Salmon gone awry."

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig