Nine of us had the time of our lives the other Saturday night at Felix's. We were camped out in the back of the dining room -- where calf-high coffee tables and a tangle of vintage couches and pleather-upholstered chairs constitute the lounge area -- and we had the fortuitous pleasure of sitting right between the doors to the two unisex bathrooms. We declared our tucked-away corner the "V.I.Pee-Pee" room. We met everybody else who was at Felix's that evening, one bladder-bedeviled customer at a time. We placed bets on which lavatory would become available first. We called for another round and another round and another. We laughed with the folks in line for the loo, and we made fun of them, too. (Though I still cringe at how I loudly asked some poor guy in a Members Only jacket, "So what are you, like, the last member?" Not just because it was mean, but because it was a not-very-funny line from Shallow Hal.) When we received two plates of flatbread but no napkins, we confiscated a roll of TP and proudly made it our table's centerpiece. We laughed even harder when the waitress came by and didn't notice. We ordered a slice of chocolate bourbon pecan pie off the late-night menu (which is just the desserts and flatbreads off the full-fledged menu), and the crust tasted really funny, almost chemical, so we wound up getting great mileage out of saying to each other over and over, "There's pool in the pie. There's pool in the pie!"
A lounge grows in Dogtown -- what a lark! Even if it is just a carved-out portion of the dining room, which is furnished in simple black chairs and tables, the idea's a bold move on the part of business partners Pepe Kehm (who also owns Spaghetteria Mama Mia down the street) and Rob Quiason. Amid unfussy, blue-collar establishments like Seamus McDaniel's and Chuy's, Felix's sticks out from its corner storefront like a sore thumb (but in a good way). Or a green thumb: The walls are painted an audacious, cheesy-cool avocado shade, like 1970s refrigerators. There's a smattering of mildly interesting art hung about -- not remarkable enough to justify the declaration on the menu that Felix's is all about "Food Drink Art," but not a bad touch. Alas, the same can be said for the "Food" and "Drink" elements, and that's the problem: a menu that is more sheen than substance, food that reads better than it tastes, and an overall concept of a retro-chic spot ill-supported by what's actually there.
The one and only menu breaks down like this: Grazing Plates, Grazing Flatbreads, Greens and Things, Retro Sandwiches, Irresistible Sweets. "Grazing Flatbreads," I'm here to tell you, is nothing more than an up-market, inaccurate way of saying "four different mini-pizzas about the size of a dinner plate" -- and disappointingly ordinary pizzas at that. They're dry. Two are overpowered by a flavorful but singular ingredient; the concentrated taste of sun-dried tomato makes it impossible to figure out or appreciate the four cheeses in the four-cheese and sun-dried tomato flatbread, while the roasted garlic obliterates any wisps of roasted chicken in the roasted-chicken-and-roasted-garlic. Most inadequate is the flatbread with lobster, pesto and cream cheese. The only noticeable appearance of lobster is a single, puny, wrinkled claw of meat perched in the center, and even the cream cheese is doled out in stingy, minuscule dollops.
Dropping the L-word (lobster) on this menu is a cheat, because it fails to deliver on one's expectations that something special, something decadent, is in store. Worse, the menu is studded with similar setups. During a lunch visit, an off-menu soup of the day was seafood chowder with swordfish, mahi mahi and lobster. Wow! Can you imagine? I'm still imagining; what I got tasted like New England clam chowder from a can. There may well have been bits of the three aforementioned seafoods in it, but with a cream base so thick and blunt, it was impossible to tell.
Then there's the focaccia that holds together three "Retro Sandwiches" and occupies the bread baskets. Dry as the flatbread, it hasn't the strength, moistness or chewiness to anchor an ABLT (that's avocado, bacon, lettuce and tomato) or a tender, meaty rib eye with horseradish sauce. And cut into cubes and served plain and stale in a bread basket with no butter or other accompaniment, the only thing to call it is focaccia kibble.
Irony of ironies, my favorite dish at Felix's is the lobster layer dip -- not because of the lobster. What I remember most about this appetizer (ahem, Grazing Plate) is that it tasted like deliciously déclassé egg salad, with gobs of mayonnaise and loads of hard-cooked egg. The fact that it's described as being made with rémoulade only adds to my amusement, as rémoulade is basically a fancy French way of saying "mayonnaise mixed with mustard and relish."
And then, wonder of wonders, dessert ("Irresistible Sweets") turns out to be a crowd-pleasing course. The coconut roulade (from Sugaree Baking Company down the street) is outstanding: sweet but not sugary, terrifically distended with a belly full of coconut cream. As it's served in so many restaurants nowadays, a flourless chocolate cake (also from Sugaree) is basically a block of fudge drizzled with some raspberry sauce, far from intricate but no cause for complaint. And what's best about the pineapple-and-macadamia-nut upside-down cake is not that it's made in house or that it's got a finger-licking-good custard sauce, or the fact that it's as scrumptious as any chocolate dessert, but the fact that unlike most of the menu items that merely pose as retro, this one actually is.
Speaking of poseurs versus the real deal, Felix's does have some fun with the two on its drink menu. Specialty cocktails are divided up according to "The Real Deal" (meaning martinis and nothing more), "Contenders" (such as sidecars and Manhattans) and "Pretenders" (your girly, frothy cocktails). In this last category, Felix's throws into the mix a mochatini (Absolut Vanilia, Kahlúa, chocolate liqueur and cream) and a key lime pie martini (Absolut Vanilia, lime juice, triple sec and cream, with crushed graham crackers on the rim). Clever, but mostly unnecessary. The mochatini needs a heavier dose of cream and chocolate syrup; as is, it tastes like chocolate medicine. The key lime martini is smoother and makes for a nice dessert.
While Felix's dining room and lounge receive their test runs from curious, culinary-minded people, the separate barroom seems to have already filled up nicely with regulars -- meaning mostly bartenders' friends and friends of friends, with a few folks from the neighborhood. In that way, Felix's is quite like Dogtown's more laid-back, unpretentious, everybody-knows-your-name watering holes. The rest of this restaurant should come off so relaxed.
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