Back in 1991, when U2 were still releasing albums worth listening to, Bono wailed on about a young woman who was “even better than the real thing”, which the band said was meant to reflect the 90s obsession with instant gratification. It’s been ten years since I bought my last U2 album and I’m more impressed with the 130 square metre bedroom Bono added to his Dublin home than I am his recent musical output, but I’ve got to admit that the little Irish devil had a point. As it turned out the 90s were only a signpost on the road, ever since then the cultural landscape looks like it has been trampled by the Persian army as led by a metrosexual, yuppie, Xerxes.
Some people believe that chain restaurants like Brown’s Social House, Cactus Club & Earl’s are the culinary offspring of that movement; places that have the sizzle, but not the steak. After three visits to the recently-opened Brown’s Social House I can safely say that while much of the criticism is unwarranted they still have some work to do.
Mainly, today, it rained. I had planned on reviewing Devour, on Broughton Street; they’ve been getting a lot of buzz and I’ve yet to so much as step in the door, but the rain turned out to be stronger than my dedication and while walking past The Falls I stepped into Brown’s instead. The hostess met me at the door and offered me the choice of either a booth or a seat at the bar and I chose the latter. I won’t waste much time describing Brown’s decor; if you’ve been to Cactus Club or Earl’s you have an idea of what to expect: high ceilings, lots of black and grey, sleek surfaces and LCD TVs.
The bartender introduced himself as Matt and took my drink order. The bar sits near the center of the room, with seats on all sides, and as luck would have it the seats near me filled up shortly after my arrival. While I browsed the menu I tried not to hear the buzz of conversation around me, most of which was about money, home renovation or sex. And not the kind of sex had between two people who have spent years mapping out the contours of each other’s bodies or even the frenzied tupenny upright fuelled by too much ecstasy and Basstronaut.
No, the sex being described was more fantastical, born of teenaged imagination and too much time spent watching pornography. You’ve heard it all before, that locker room braggadocio where the penis invariably transforms from an unreliable, flappy bit of dangerously exposed cartilage into something vast and frightening, like a rollercoaster made from the body of the Kraken. The pint of Social Lager that Matt left in front of me did nothing to wash away the foul taste in my mouth.
Luckily for Brown’s their staff makes up for the clientele. On each of my visits the level of service I’ve received from entrance to exit has been superlative. Even during busy times like dinner or lunch rush, meals have always arrived and drinks been refilled in a timely manner. Even more importantly it’s done with a smile and an affability that doesn’t seem forced.
In past I’ve tried the Hickory Burger ($13), Standing Ovation Chicken ($15) and a variety of appetizers, so this time I tried the Almost Famous Blackened Fish Sandwich ($15), with “Pacific halibut, crisp coleslaw and chef’s dressing” and fries. When it arrived I was pleased to see that it was still steaming hot from the kitchen but disappointed that it was being served on the same bun as the burgers. It’s a minor point but when something is advertised as a “sandwich” I expect that it be served on bread, preferably toasted. The first bite, into the corner of the breaded filet, tasted great and had a pleasing crunch. After that initial bite, however, the softness of the bun and ingredients caused everything to blend together and the sandwich became bland. I think having either a toasted bun or, preferably, bread would have helped lend everything some texture; it wasn’t a terrible effort but overall I was underwhelmed.
The other meals I’ve tried on previous occasions have been of a generally higher standard, with the exception of the Hickory Burger which was a bit small and overcooked. The Standing Ovation Chicken with almond rice & broccolini is great, even if the name Broccolini sounds more like one of Scaramanga’s henchmen than it does a vegetable. Appetizers like General Tao’s Chicken ($12), Salt & Pepper Dry Ribs ($10) & the Classic Hot Wings ($10.50) are all recommendable but the Calamari Milazzo ($11) is not. The combination of calamari with tomato sauce didn’t work for me at all.
American Idol has been churning out bland pop sensations year after year to an adoring public for so long now that even Simon Cowell is bored, yet the show marches on. So, too, will the endless parade of chain restaurants that “have the jam, but not the bread” and Brown’s will have to walk a thin line to ensure it doesn’t fall into that category. Some of the regulars have less taste than a John Waters film, the prices are high and the food is of a solid, in some cases great, quality, all of which renders Brown’s fairly unremarkable. What sets it apart is the quality of service and while it won’t change the mind of anyone opposed to chain restaurants on principle, it does make for a pleasant evening out. Provided you’re not sat next to the Trouser Carnival.