To my eyes, the barroom has hardly changed. With its impressive rectangular bar lording over the middle of the room and its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking what little street life occurs in this nook of neighborhood sandwiched between the Skinker-DeBaliviere area and the heart of the CWE, it's a distinguished, elegant, Continental space. So much so that no matter who's running the show or what kind of food is being dished out, it just can't help but remain the same. And while Spyglass co-owner Tom Angus Jr. swore to me later that he and his partner, first-time restaurateur Peter Gubany, had administered a "complete transformation" to this room and the adjacent, more somber-toned dining room, the latter still feels uncomfortably like you're staging a fine-dining sit-in in a lobby, and I can't help but suspect that the barroom's wooden tables and stools are the same ones I sat at during Q's brief run.
If memory serves, the wrought-metal chairs lined up along the bar are the only facet of that room's décor that are truly different. The regulars sitting in them and drinking beer through their extended lunch hours -- men in golf shirts and pleated-front khakis, cell phones strapped to their braided-leather belts -- haven't changed. Nor have the female bartenders in their disco-feverish duds. Nor the TV sets anchored from the ceiling, tuned to the sports channels. Nor the Internet jukebox, a neon-metallic eyesore in the corner. Nor the feeling of dead air that permeates this spot from one name change to the next -- through Turvey's on the Green, the Excelsior Room, Q's and now, sad to say, Spyglass.
"Cannelloni Bites" are listed among the appetizers on the menu -- right where they were on Q's menu. Cannelloni are supposed to be pasta tubes, typically stuffed with filling and baked with sauce. Here they are T-ravs in sheep's clothing: ground chicken and artichokes (a mix that in this context tastes a lot like ground beef) inside a breadcrumby encasement, deep-fried and served with a pomodoro dip.
Once upon a time, according to a sweet old lady who stopped by on one of my subsequent visits (she was casing the joint for an upcoming party she was planning), the dining area in the lobby was the Walnut Room, so named for its wood-paneled walls, still intact though nicked up over the years. She wistfully described its golden age as "elegant -- lovely, lovely." Today that classiness is only a façade. Angus and Gubany cleansed the erstwhile Walnut Room of Q's pool table, big-screen TV and depressing thatch of Formica tables and vinyl chairs, making way for a bombastic, Bombay Company-style armada of over-the-top ornate chairs, a six-foot fountain and white linen tablecloths (halfway to threadbare from their former lives wherever). The anterooms that lead the way to the bathrooms are crammed with overstuffed leather couches, loads of leafy plants and a glass-backed waterfall contraption that bears the Spyglass insignia.
Angus, a well-meaning guy who's been in and out of the local restaurant biz since he was twelve, accruing much of his experience on the Hill (which I think says something), says he skewed his menu American-Mediterranean for marketing purposes, figuring "it would be the most well-received compared with other restaurants in the area." Also, I'd wager, because Mediterranean is the default cuisine of the decade for restaurants that don't know what else to call themselves: It sounds good and it allows the kitchen to operate in broad sketches, flip-flopping around Italy, Greece, Spain, France, and the Middle East with catch-all nonchalance. Or laziness.
Sharing appetizer-list space with the ersatz cannelloni, "Spyglass Shrimp" were disappointingly similar to the bar-food stalwart known as jalapeño poppers, with bits of shrimp struggling for recognition amid jack cheese and jalapeños inside a spherical deep-fried shell wrapped in jalapeño-flavored bacon. Bruschetta, charred black on the bottom, had too much in common with Olive Garden garlic bread, the diced tomatoes more a garnish than a main feature, outnumbered by loads of crumbled Parmesan and dried-up pesto. Grated Parm, in fact, runs rampant here. It's showered over the ten-inch pizzas, the house salad, the Cannelloni Bites. Paired with the kitchen's tendency to use a lot of oil (the otherwise decent house salad and the pecan chicken salad came out shiny), it's a frustrating tactile situation. Wiping sticky grated Parmesan from one's digits after sampling finger food is annoying.
Parmesan cheese may be cheap and prevalent, but saffron is not. It is renowned as the most expensive spice on Earth, and should be treated as such. But while the saffron-marinated chicken breast chunks that find their way into a chicken gyro and the Spyglass chicken kebabs flaunt saffron's signature yellow tones on the outside, the meat inside is just plain Perdue heat-and-eat. The gyro gets further short shrift from pita bread so stiff I couldn't tell if it was overtoasted or merely stale. It was in desperate need of some juice, literally and figuratively, to bring the sandwich together. Same problem with the spinach and goat cheese quesadillas. These boasted richly colored leaves of spinach and an ample shmeer of cheese, but with rigid, cardboard-like grilled flatbread sandwiching it together, the appetizer was lifeless. It hit the palate dryly, and received no help from a spackle-thick tzatziki presented on the side.
The bed of risotto laid down for a pomegranate chicken entrée also bore the color of saffron. Risotto Milanese, a traditional preparation, does employ saffron, and I figured that's what it was. But Angus says there's no saffron in the risotto. Regardless, the dish was a kitchen-sink calamity of grilled chicken breast, caramelized onion, walnuts and raisins, all of it covered in a pomegranate glaze. It was just...wrong. It smelled grimacingly bad -- not improperly prepared, but a misguided array of clashing flavors heaped into the same bowl. It tasted like a burnt Christmas dinner, or burnt kettle corn.
While the women slinging drinks behind the bar wear sequin-accented outfits, the dining-room waitstaff dons traditional white shirts and black trousers. Like many high-end places these days, the servers are cordial and competent, but they dress the part of the professional waiter more than they pull it off. It's easy to imagine any one of them doing the same job at, say, Fitz's, in much the same way. At least Spyglass' prices aren't overgussied: Only three entrées ring up above $20, with many in the $14 to $16 range. (On the flip side, $8 for that pile of cannelloni is insulting.)
Workmanlike, heavy and bland, Spyglass' food would best be categorized as wedding-banquet fare. Had the Walnut Room endured, I envision it occupying the realm of, say, a Rossino's or a Papa Fabarre's -- restaurants that beat a dead horse with antiquated menus and culinary execution but dish out enough authentic charm on the side to more than make up for it. At the ripe old age of three months, Spyglass has the lackluster food down pat, but no nostalgic verisimilitude to back it up.
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