Therein lies the irony: This type of unique-minded operation has become so crowd-pleasingly popular that it's a cliché, almost as much a self-parody as, say, Applebee's, the very sort of place the Wild Flowers of the world aim so pointedly to trounce. Even if you've never eaten at Wild Flower, you've pretty much eaten at Wild Flower. Still, thanks to the relentless pursuit of whimsy, it can feel refreshing (almost) and new (nearly) every time (more or less).
Chef Marvin Nunley's menu reveals strong affinities for certain out-of-the-ordinary ingredients and preparations. Goat cheese, walnuts, shallots, stuffed things, things wrapped in pastry -- all make repeat appearances, to varying degrees of success. The page of appetizers (titled "starters/para comenzar/débuter/per iniziare") leads things off promisingly. The bruschetta is great, turning the traditional tomato-topped favorite inside out, with a biting crown of black-olive tapenade and only a few pieces of tomato as garnish. Louisiana crab cakes are delightfully crusty and crumbly -- a nice change of pace from the more common mushy variety, allowing the shellfish's delicate sweetness to flourish rather than get bogged down. Cajun calamari is likewise nicely understated, though the chipotle aioli for dipping annihilates the palate and should be attempted only by spice lunatics. A mushroom puff pastry -- a sautéed fungus medley mixed with shallots and green onions and doused with sherry, cream and balsamic syrup -- is sweet and fun, as is the goat cheese served with apple and carrot slices. (That plate, by the way, is called "Goat Buster." Ha, ha.) Clearly Nunley is unafraid of sugary flavors, and such culinary capriciousness well serves his first-course offerings.
Then come the soups (la sopa/soupe/la minestra) and salads (ensalada/salade/l'insalta [sic]). Lobster bisque is a menu constant, augmented by a soup of the day. The latter, lentil the night I ordered it, was porridge-thick and in dire need of oomph. The bisque, meanwhile, was a disaster. Grossly sweet, it tasted like a bowl of lukewarm popcorn butter, and it looked like one, too -- more yellow than lobster-pink. The house salad was largely forgettable, though the sunflower seeds are a nice touch. But the "Golden Chèvre" salad gets carried away with innovation. It's an overstuffed jumble of dried cranberries, candied (yes, candied) walnuts, breaded goat cheese, apple slices, strawberry-poppyseed vinaigrette and (lest we forget) lettuce. Ambitious, certainly; successful, not so. Depending on what amalgam of ingredients get scooped up on your fork, the salad might taste like oversweetened breakfast cereal or sundae toppings without the sundae. It's a Waldorf salad that ran away and joined the circus.
Entrées run a nice gamut. Chicken, pasta, fish (including shellfish), beef and pork are all present and accounted for; there's even a nonpasta meal (braised Swiss chard) for vegetarians. But, sadly, these do little to remedy the soups' and salads' pitfalls, too often tasting as if they've been taken one step too far.
Garlic chicken promises some welcome simplicity, but it comes stuffed -- "generously stuffed," the menu notes -- with cream cheese and served on a bed of fettuccine Alfredo, so there goes that. Similar fates befall the chicken Vronique (flavored with Grand Marnier, butter and grapes) and trout stuffed with crabmeat. (The trout tasted to me as if it was stuffed with goat cheese, but maybe my taste buds were numbed by all the goat cheese that led up to the main courses.) It's all too easy to fuss too much with fish -- witness the Dijon-encrusted salmon, which came to the table overcooked and overseasoned.
Kitchen missteps plagued other entrées as well. Walnut pork tenderloin, moored unpleasantly in a soupy reduction of caramelized onion and sherry, was overdone. Lobster Thermidor, a shellfish preparation that is traditionally a big to-do -- tail meat sauced with white wine, shallots, tarragon and mustard, then put back in its shell, dusted with Parmesan cheese and broiled -- was overcooked and dry; the risotto that accompanied it was undercooked and dry. Chicken Wellington (wrapped in puff pastry, à la beef Wellington) was a bit leaden, though it was preferable to the other chicken options.
Not coincidentally, the simplest main dish fared the best. With only a thick slab of grilled portobello mushroom on top to dress it up, the aptly named "Best Filet" was tender and juicy; scrumptious. (The sides -- rice or potato with seasonal vegetables -- were straightforward as well; nothing at dinner made me smile more than the firm, unadorned, oversize broccoli stalks that graced each plate.)
The wine list is reasonably wide-ranging but nothing to write home about, comprising three dozen bottles and dominated by the usual suspects.
Ironically, given the sugariness of so many of the dishes that precede it, dessert options are few. Wild Flower doesn't print up the final course on the menu but relies on a tray to do the talking. And talk up a storm it does, with lots of fanciful syrup doodads decorating the plates. Though I'd thought I'd had enough sweet stuff, it would have been a mistake to miss the apple bread pudding: moist but not soggy, sweet but not saccharine (in contrast to that ill-conceived Golden Chèvre). Cheesecake, both plain and done up chocolate-raspberry, was likewise unimpeachable.
The real delight about Wild Flower, as any of the restaurant's many fans can tell you, is the see-and-be-seen-ness it offers. Wild Flower regularly receives huzzahs from local media outlets, best-of lists and readers' polls for its Central West End people-watching possibilities -- especially during warm weather, thanks to some prime-location outdoor seating. Perhaps that's why the restaurant's shortcomings so often go overlooked: Customers are too busy looking at the passers-by to pay attention to what's on their plates.