Intoxicating

Uptown's newest fun palace proves you shouldn't drink where you eat

Everything I tried was strange, tasted far from fresh, or both. The tomatoes in the chilled asparagus salad ($7.95) were fermenting. The croutons in the panzanella salad were about the size of golf balls and nearly as difficult to eat. The pepperoni pizza ($8.95) had lovely slices of pepperoni glued to a whole-wheat cracker crust that tasted like a very old Wheat Thin. The dressing on the Caesar salad ($5.95) was off-puttingly sweet. The Italian pasta nachos were a complete disaster: Imagine blue cheese dressing on those fried noodles that used to come with Chinese takeout and you'll get the general idea.

The restaurant's signature offering is something called Tonic Stones: Order it and you'll get a polished triangular granite stone, heated, says the menu, to 450 degrees, and placed on your table in an insulated container. For $5.95 you get to choose between Kobe beef, bluefin tuna, and vegetables to cook upon it. The tuna and beef both come in very thin slices on a chilled plate alongside intensely sweet sauces. Unfortunately, these fragile morsels are so very delicate that it takes mere seconds for them to become overcooked. And then it takes the merest hint of accompanying sauce to completely overwhelm the pricey protein. So now you've spent six bucks on a shriveled morsel of over-sauced nothing. It's depressing. But on the up side, it does make nigiri sushi seem like an absolute bargain.

Servers are not much help. While they're very good at refilling water glasses and ferrying cocktails, they're generally uninformed about the food and clueless about the wine. And I think they're fairly powerless to change this. One night one well-meaning young lady took a question about a wine all the way to two managers, and then had to report back that neither of them had tasted, or knew anything about, the bottle in question.

Desserts were no better. I tried the caramelized banana torte ($6.95) twice, because I could not believe that the stale, undercooked, floury bowl the thing is presented in was intentional. It is. Inside this nearly inedible shell is a reasonably tasty caramelized banana concoction, which is made off-putting by a scattering of slices of black licorice. There's a black licorice sorbet alongside, in case you really want to explore the varieties of unpleasant that undercooked flour, unctuous banana, and palate-clearing licorice can accomplish.

The cheesecake tower ($7.95) is three discs of cheesecake stacked prettily on top of one another, each covered with a separate sauce. But each tastes too sweet and too much like chemicals, like something purchased cheaply at a bad supermarket. The Bomb is the best dessert, and one of the very few items worth ordering. It's a ball of dark chocolate cake in a thick chocolate shell presented alongside a rich scoop of chocolate sorbet. It arrives at the table crowned by a sizzling sparkler--cute!

The weird thing is, there is something cute deep in this failure of a fine-dining restaurant. There's actually a plain-old friendly bar-food joint yearning to breathe free. You get a glimpse of it at lunch, in the very good Tonic burger or the braised short rib sandwich, or at dinner in the lobster fennel dip. That burger ($9.95) is the best thing on the Tonic menu by a country mile. It's a kind of meatloaf of a burger in which ground Kobe beef is combined with roasted garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, and cheddar cheese into a soft, rich charmer that just about dissolves in the mouth as you eat it.

The braised short ribs ($9.95), served on a focaccia roll at lunch, were long-cooked, plain, and nicely meaty and rich. Lose the abrasive mustard horseradish concoction that accompanied them, and we'd really have something. At dinner, the appetizer of lobster fennel dip ($9.50) is another almost there. It's a variation on artichoke ramekin; a hot bowl of lobster and cheese, which tastes very mayonnaisey and has the barest hint of fennel, and generally it gives you the chance to, you know, dip garlicky bits of bread which resemble pizza crust into a rich, cheesy thing. Which is part of why we leave the house, after all.

I do know that, you know.

I mean, it's not like I'm against tacky no-brainer fun. I'd love Tonic if it could combine fun drinks and that fun deck with some fun, adeptly accomplished snacks. It's the overpriced incompetence of its fine dining that strikes me as no fun at all.

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