At first I thought, it must be me, experiencing a rough culinary re-entry from last week's vacation, taste buds out of whack from a week of eating my way across Paris and the south of France. (Let me tell you, all that fine wine, buttery patisseries, artisanal cheeses and such can really wreak havoc on your palate.) But it wasn't just me. My dining companions — a mix of East Coast transplants and a Wedgwood-collecting, globetrotting cousin who knows his way around a menu in at least 12 languages — were equally dismayed.
Now, those who know me would tell you that, perhaps to a fault, I always dig deep to find something good in even difficult people and circumstances. At Hyde Park Tavern and Grille, however, my vie-en-rose outlook took a pummeling. The food ranged from forgettable to terrible, and our dining experience, despite a well-intentioned and friendly server, was not good. I left the restaurant with a profound sense of relief that the meal was, at last, over.
Perhaps tempting fate and trying to fully embrace the reality of being newly back in America from vacationing on the Continent, I opted for the hyperbolic-sounding Blue Cheese Kettle Chips ($6.50), warm kettle chips drizzled with alfredo sauce and blue cheese crumbles (if this ever appeared in a restaurant in France, they would promptly call a gendarme).
I'm up for a periodic, over-the-top artery rush, but this was way too much. Greasy and heavy, it was ruined by the liberal application of a substance termed "Alfredo sauce."
I am three-fourths Italian, and let me tell you, this was no Alfredo. The plasticene, orangey, pudding-like substance with a pedigree more laboratory than kitchen was the furthest thing imaginable from the thick, creamy freshness of a real Alfredo sauce.
The Crab Dip ($8.50), warm and flavored with Old Bay (a unique, Chesa-peake-Bay spice staple), was very fishy and dense and none of our party cared much for it. Crab cakes, crab dip, crab-just-about-anything usually flies off the plate; this didn't, with almost half of it going untouched.
According to the menu, the Roasted Portobellos entrée ($17) came "stuffed with cheeses, finished with herbs and served with Parmesan linguine and vegetable." More like "blasted, shriveled, tough, shrunken, mummified and served with bland, oily pasta." These poor mushrooms were a distant cry from the succulent, moist, earthy wonder of properly roasted portobellos.
I sympathized with one of my companions who ordered the Ravioli Alfredo ($14), not knowing that the "cheese-stuffed ravioli with alfredo sauce, crumbled blue cheese, and toasted pine nuts" would come out drowning in the pudding-like Alfredo substitute. Scraping off the horrid sauce revealed a handful of uninspired and chewy ravioli.
A Filet Mignon ($23) expressly requested cooked-through for a finicky, pregnant diner came out on the moo side of medium and had to be sent back for more cooking. A full 20 minutes later, her plate reappeared, bearing what I swear was not the same piece of meat. Although our server assured us that it was, in fact, the same, given the pre- and post-volume and texture, this was just not possible. Mean-while, we watched another diner at a nearby table, looking quizzically at a plate placed in front of him bearing two small humps of wizened meat that looked suspiciously like our missing filet. Horrifying. To her credit, our server, unprompted, had this disastrous entrée taken off our bill.
However, I am happy to report that our meal wasn't all bad. The Mediter-ranean Pizza ($16.50) had a chewy yet pleasantly crunchy crust, a thick, flavorful sauce and the right amount of cheese. Larger than personal size, it could nearly feed two people. The owner's background is in the pizza business in the Baltimore area, and it clearly shows. It was better than many pizzas I've had in Cincinnati.
The restaurant has an enormous patio with a fountain in the middle, umbrellas and funky misters that blow fog to cool the air. Most of the first floor is given over to a large bar area with lots of space and small tables. It's here that karaoke night, ladies night and live entertainment on the weekends really get cranking.
I had a boxing coach once (lest you think all food critics are wimps) who helped me learn one of the most important rules of fisticuffs: punch your own weight. Meaning? Take on challenges you can handle. Not a bad lesson for Hyde Park Tavern and Grille to learn.
I don't hold grudges, so who knows? I might even go back to Hyde Park Tavern and Grille some day. But I am certainly not going to order anything more elaborate than a pizza or burger to go with my beer. And this time, I'll definitely wait a few weeks after I come back from vacation. ©
Hyde Park Tavern and Grille
Go: 3384 Erie Ave., Hyde Park
Hours: Serves food: 11 a.m.- 1 a.m. Monday-Sunday; dinner: 5-11 p.m. Monday-Sunday
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Salads, pizza, seafood
Accessibility: Yes (ramp in rear from parking lot)