Mission (Mostly) Accomplished

Acclaimed local chef Doug Flicker has finally rolled out his own menus at Mission American Kitchen

I happen to have a copy of the wine list Mission opened with in 2004, under different owners, when it had more of a steak-and-chophouse theme. I was unsurprised to find it largely unchanged. The list that made sense for an expense-account steakhouse isn't the same one you want when wooing food cognoscenti paying their own way. Worse, three out of the four people on the service staff I dealt with had no understanding of the wine they were selling. One well-meaning server recommended the flabby oak-and-fruit bomb Coppola "Director's Cut" Chardonnay ($12 a glass) to go with the restaurant's hauntingly elegant black cod with buttered leeks, which would have been like getting a butterscotch pudding to wash down the fish.

The restaurant was out of the only bubbly they serve by the glass on two of my visits, the Mumm Napa Brut ($10, now replaced with a $15 split of Moet), and one server tried to convince me that a $45 half-bottle of Laurent-Perrier was the logical substitute. When I told her a half-bottle was different from a split she looked at me as if I had suddenly lapsed into speaking Serbo-Croatian.

The cocktails at Mission leave much to be desired now, too. The "Mission Statement" ($13), once a mysteriously elegant martini made of Gray Goose and Inniskillin ice wine that seemed like the frozen shadow of a grape, now is thin and biting. Another martini, ordered "a little dirty," came as salty as brine.

I don't really blame the servers for any of this; I blame the management. All the people who work on a restaurant's floor should know the restaurant's food and wine, and they should have a manager or sommelier to retreat to if the questions start seeming over their head. I didn't see any evidence that the servers at Mission had this backup.

I did have one server who seemed aware of the pitfalls of Mission's wine list. When I asked about two of the glass-pours, she ventured that many guests had been unhappy with one of them and immediately went to the bar to fetch a taste of each for the table. I was impressed with her instinct for good service. However, another server on another night, also winging it, leaned over the table and confided that the red velvet cake had just been baking earlier that night, and the kitchen smelled heavenly with the scent of it. Only when she retreated with our order for a piece did I remember that frosted layer cakes are by definition never served hot from the oven; the cakes have to be cooled, cut into layers, frosted, and left to set in the refrigerator. When the cake arrived it was refrigerator chilly, and while I had one reaction to that, I'm sure another guest with visions of warm cake dancing in his head would have had quite another one.

In addition to these odd holes where management should be, Mission has a menu that's too long and an identity that's a bit perplexing. For instance, I couldn't tell you why the place is so committed to its ever-looping soundtrack of Rat Pack and '40s jazz standards—except that that's how it opened. Again, it's not an expense-account destination anymore, so why alienate every young hipster with a soundtrack that today sounds very Starbucks-five-years-ago? More weirdness: Servers begin every meal with a bit of theater that, even after a series of visits, completely mystifies me. You sit, then they come and switch out your white napkin for a black one. Or they offer you a napkin to match your clothes. I never comprehended it.

I did comprehend that the very long menu (at dinner, 16 starters and salads, 10 entrees, 6 sides, a few bar-only treats, and whatever specials of the day or tasting menus are on offer) loses vigor in its legginess. If you're not careful ordering appetizers, you could end up with a first course of nothing but brown fried things—like truffle-cream cheese wontons ($8), cornmeal-crusted rock shrimp ($14), fried lobster croquettes ($14), and house-made chips ($5).

I thought a few of the dinner entrees missed the mark. A Kobe beef pot roast ($28) was so rich it crossed into chocolate-truffle territory; I can't conceive of anyone finishing even half of it. A bone-in veal tenderloin chop ($30) was cottony and unfocused.

Desserts didn't seem to have any coherent underlying philosophy: Are they retro? Creative? Delicious? Placeholders? I'd say yes to one of each: The red velvet cake ($9) was sweet, mellow, pretty, and more or less unremarkable, as the old-fashioned cake is in even its best versions. The chocolate tart ($9) has nothing to recommend it; the tart shell is salty and dense, the chocolate layer tasteless. Even desserts from the tasting menus were a little ho-hum: A pistachio French toast was heavy; a squash tart lacked pep.

Mission does have one brilliant dessert, a baked Alaska ($9), in which a burnt orange ice cream is wrapped in a hedgehog-pointy ball of Swiss meringue and broiled. The result is alternating bites of slightly sweet cream, bitter orange, and all sorts of different kinds of toasty. It's remarkably sophisticated, a Creamsicle for people with a palate for whiskey.

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