"So, can I get you gentlemen something more to drink? Or maybe something to nibble on -- some pizza shooters, shrimp poppers or extreme fajitas?"
-- Brian, the overzealous Chotchkie's waiter, in Office Space (1999)
New American, as some sort of distinct culinary genre, is a joke. The New Food Lover's Companion, the foodie's go-to dictionary, makes no mention of it, though it does define the more indigenously American "Cajun cooking," "Creole cooking" and "soul food" -- which began in people's kitchens or on their fire pits out back, not in the white-jacketed, toque-topped environs of professional chefs.
Everybody knows that Cajun has its jambalaya, Creole its gumbo and soul food its ham hocks and collard greens, just as everybody knows that pasta's the bedrock of Italian cuisine, paella the pride of Spain, and that Irish food is bland, but those corned-beef sandwiches are pretty good. Meanwhile nobody can name a single New American staple, and any attempt to do so will quickly devolve into self-parody: Asian-Dijon seared breast of Missouri farm-raised chicken, served on a bed of wilted baby radicchio, with taro-root purée, coconut-soaked Yukon Gold potatoes and a passion fruit-molasses emulsion.
New American is nothing more than menu Mad Libs, a crazy assemblage of keywords, not any one of them providing anchor to a sloppy, culinary catch-all cuisine. Regular old American foods, when you read them on a menu, make you go mmm. Meat loaf and mashed potatoes....mmm. Roasted turkey and stuffing.... mmm. Fried chicken.... mmm. But reading a New American menu makes you go ooh! a lot, because it sounds cute. Take the dinner menu at Clark Street Grill: balsamic roasted portobello -- ooh! Brie cheese -- ooh!-- with baby arugula -- ooh! -- and basil vinaigrette -- ooh! Truffled Parmesan pommes frites -- ooh! Chicory coffee lacquered quail -- cuuuute!
Sure, it's possible to enjoy a delicious New American meal, but at restaurants like the three-year-old Clark Street Grill -- located inside the downtown Westin Hotel -- it's largely luck of the draw, and it's not often worth the price.
Clark Street's kitchen was recently inherited by sous chef Stephen Milstein after exec chef Doug Knopp flew the coop for an Eastern-seaboard country club. Milstein's menu leans toward the absurd. Building on Chotchkie's pizza shooters and shrimp poppers, Clark Street Grill's got cocktail shrimp shooters: three shot glasses each poured tall with a different kind of salsa (red, yellow and tomatillo), studded with those itsy-bitsy shrimp, the kind usually breaded and fried to make, ahem, shrimp poppers. When your lead-off appetizer resembles the punch line from a quasi-cult-classic that lampoons our McSociety, you know you're in McTrouble. All the more so when the shrimp's got a funky aftertaste.
In an old Mary Katherine Gallagher sketch from Saturday Night Live, Molly Shannon's awkward "Superstar!" gets a waitress job at a T.G.I. Friday's-type place. Scott Wolf plays her frenetically over-exuberant co-worker, the kind who sits down at the table to take a party's order, and there's a cheap laugh when he lists something like "Lucky Charms chicken" as a special.
Clark Street Grill has fortune-cookie fried shrimp and pretzel-crusted chicken breast. Seriously, what is the point of fortune-cookie fried shrimp? To the credit of Clark Street's clientele, I was told by a waiter that it doesn't sell, that maybe one in fifty customers actually orders it, which might explain why mine was so awful; maybe the cooks were out of practice. (I do, however, blame the line cooks for relatively little of this. They're not the ones who wrote the menu.) The puddle of soy garlic sauce these shrimp come mired in is bracingly, cloyingly salty. It subjected my tongue into rug burn and obliterated any sweetness or crunch right out of the fortune-cookie breading. The pretzel-chicken, meanwhile, did actually taste like both pretzel and chicken, but its nothing-special flavor (I enjoyed the sides of fingerling potatoes and Broccolini more) only made the case that KFC consider adding it to its roster, not that somebody walk into Clark Street Grill and plunk down $20 for it.
Calamari, another ooh! word, shows up in the fried calamari Caesar salad. There oughta be a law demanding that whenever a restaurant serves calamari, it must first show the customer a sample plate of really good, really quality calamari: a whole damn piece of pink and purple squid -- not just some chewy white O-ring of mollusk meat that could be used as a washer on your shower taps -- unbreaded, pan-fried for just a minute, then spritzed with fresh lemon. People need to know what they're missing out on when they are instead served something resembling an onion ring. Thinking about how lovely real calamari would be on a bed of Caesar, and then getting fast food on lettuce, is heartbreaking.
And in the midst of all this, somebody had the gall to include a "simply done" beef tenderloin, paired with little more than (horseradish whipped) potatoes, (baby) spinach and (baby) carrots -- for $37.
Clark Street Grill's food does look great, with richly toned brown sauces and deep-green bok choy, Broccolini and spinach leaves. It even goes with the décor: minimalist chic but not chilly. Warm, glowing hues abound among the open-air kitchen, its sleek orange heating lamps and the front of the house's sleek wood paneling and floor-to-ceiling, loft-like columns. It feels adult but still fun.
Likewise, when the back of the house puts a cap on the cutesy stuff, the food begins to taste better -- somewhat good but rarely great. The ceviche sampler platter -- four square saucers of salmon, halibut, shrimp and bay scallops sitting on one big plate -- was too marinated for my tastes, with an acidic tinge and fish flesh not as virgin-soft as I would like. The smoked salmon Greek salad varied with each forkful. Only when the lox and kalamata olives appeared together in one bite did the dish really zing; the other bites fell flat.
The tequila pork tenderloin (Jack Daniel's steak, anyone?) was fine, even if it looked and tasted strangely like chicken, and came on a scrumptious bed of polenta. The seared ahi tuna also did what it was supposed to -- your standard pink center, your standard grayish-brown circumference -- with a single pecan shrimp dumpling that fell out of its casing before I could fully figure it out.
Two seafood items lost all flavor by the time they got to the table, another something I couldn't figure out. The corn-crusted Chilean sea bass is said to be baked, but it may as well have been bleached. The fish had no heft, no fattiness. It was a sterile piece of meat. Even good ol' crab cakes, though plated on a nice salad of red onion, yellow and red tomatoes, cucumbers, and daikon sprouts, tasted downright sedate; their flavor went nowhere, did nothing, sat there and played dead.
Not leaving well enough alone is one of New American's most egregious and oft-repeated crimes, and such is the case especially with the oven-roasted prosciutto and fresh mozzarella appetizer. Much cracked pepper clinging to the proscuitto imparts a hearty, manly flavor. Prosciutto, though, isn't supposed to be manly. In fact, more than romaine, arugula, spinach or carrots, it's prosciutto that should be labeled "baby." What's best known as a tissue-soft, delicate, buttery ham (usually paired with cantaloupe, for goodness sake) here gets the Hickory Farms treatment.
Clark Street Grill's most pleasant dish is the grilled peaches and tomato salad. Unsurprisingly, when a peach is grilled, it tastes somewhat like canned peaches, as its sugariness gets drawn to the surface. But it stops short of tasting candied, and here it's paired with lovely yellow tomatoes. The two fruits are offset by leaves of red romaine lettuce -- "baby" red romaine, natch -- and a vanilla-lemon emulsion, but the overall effect is still simple yet innovative, eye-catching and palate-pleasing.
Most of Clark Street Grill's desserts are made off-premises; one made on-site is the white chocolate-banana spring roll. The half-melted white-chocolate chips add a decadent touch and an extra dimension of flavor to a dessert that's become inexplicably popular (and sometimes called banana egg roll, or banana wonton). I would really love this dessert if it came with ice cream -- yes, plain old vanilla ice cream. Ice cream would make it go down easier, add a smoother texture and unify the brittle casing with the sticky banana meat. Ice cream would also make it a truly New American dessert, one that relies on traditional favorites and then builds from there. Why must New American so thoroughly turn its back on the old?