I love Bobby Short, the jazz pianist/cabaret singer who has held court at the Café Carlyle on New York's upper east side for 35 years now. As I remember it, the Carlyle was elegant and intimate, complete with pink tablecloths and soft red lights. The ambiance spoke to a bygone era when people dressed up and went out on the town. Those days are gone, for the most part, having fallen victim to our ever-increasing preference for all things casual. (I still marvel at guys who wear logo T-shirts to nice restaurants -- in the middle of winter.)
While The Heights Piano Bar and Restaurant isn't trying to put dressiness back into dining out (even a manager wore jeans one night), it is at least trying to resurrect the old-fashioned cabaret concept that has patrons rallying around the piano and sipping cocktails. But while the piano bar draws a dedicated group of cabaret lovers, it's the restaurant that could stand some rallying.
The menu is appealing at first glance, enticing the diner with seasonal dishes like roasted pork loin (topped with a maple demi-glace or Asian pepper sauce), marinated flank steak and stuffed portobello mushrooms. The appetizers, too, sound interesting -- like mini-beef Wellington, spanakopita, a margarita shrimp cocktail and a flash-fried spinach starter augmenting a more pedestrian array of potato skins, chicken strips and nachos. Lighter fare -- a burger, a reuben, a Monte Cristo sandwich -- is present as well. But, as they say, the devil is in the details.
In this case it was the detail of flavor, which was noticeably absent from much of what we tried. That Asian pork loin was described as having been rubbed with Chinese spices and topped with a teriyaki red pepper sauce. Yet there was no heat to the sauce, nor any hint of that tasty-sounding dry rub. The flank steak, five thick slices, was done perfectly (medium rare), but as with the pork, the "secret recipe" marinade was a mere whisper, the accompanying sauce looked too much like brown gravy and the predominant flavor was salt. The portobello mushroom entrée promised a stuffing of seafood, cheese, bread crumbs and white wine, plus a pesto topping. But the thick layer of bread crumbs obscured all the other ingredients.
All entrées come with vegetables and a potato or rice side dish. House-made garlic mashed potatoes seemed a good test. Despite the billed garlic, these spuds were flavorless, lacking even that creamy, buttery flavor that elevates real mashed potatoes to true comfort food. The vegetable medley looked tempting: green beans and wax beans mixed with "baby" carrots. But the mixture had evidently come to the kitchen frozen, as evidenced by a stringy carrot on one bite and a mushy one the next. That's a travesty that just doesn't happen when you use fresh veggies. Clearly, this was a kitchen lacking in inspiration.
On a subsequent visit, the soup of the night was a very creamy seafood chowder containing shrimp, some slivers of fresh crab and crab stick that failed to win over our table. Instead, we looked forward to the flash-fried spinach, which turned out to be much better, thanks to the addition of raw red onion and grated Parmesan cheese that provided a sharp contrast in taste. Oddly, eating a good burger while listening to gorgeous, room-filling piano music proved more pleasurable than the more ambitious meal of the prior visit.
Service was quick and friendly, perhaps a bit too friendly -- to the point where we found ourselves listening to "As Time Goes By" while wondering whether our chatty server would ever depart to fetch our desserts.
The Heights offers a brief wine list: four reds and seven whites, ranging from $4.50 to $7 per glass and up to $28 for a bottle of decent Hess Select cabernet sauvignon. The two proffered desserts were pleasing: a house-made apple pie with a caramel-walnut topping, and a light, chocolate-swirl cheesecake, both of which were served with big squirts of whipped cream. But true to the rest of the menu, even the coffee tasted boring.
Owners Jeff Kern and Rob Dawes have beautifully renovated this space on Jefferson just north of Gravois, in the up-and-coming McKinley Heights (thus the name) neighborhood, striking a comfortable balance between the casualness of the exposed brick wall and large oak bar back and the elegance of tiled floors, a chandelier over the baby grand piano, heavy curtains and a subdued mauve color scheme.
Apparently Kern and Dawes had to delay opening the restaurant portion of their establishment until October (the piano bar opened in August), owing to some setbacks involving kitchen equipment. Maybe they felt rushed. Though I wasn't able to speak with the owners when I called after my last visit to the Heights, an employee told me that the head chef, who'd been with the restaurant from the start, was being replaced. That would seem to show, at the very least, that Kern and Dawes are paying attention to what the kitchen cranks out. Any new dining venture is welcome in this developing area. Along Shenandoah alone there's the new Tanner B's restaurant and Shugga's coffee house. The Heights has a good concept -- and any place that pays piano players to tickle the ivories seven nights a week should be commended. I wonder if they know Natalie Cole's "Gimme Some Time"?