Between the fabulous experiences we've had at Harry's downtown -- a combination of straightforward and innovative choices on the menu, panoramic views, celebrity-hangout status and, at night, virtually crackling energy -- and the slightly more subdued but still highly enjoyable atmosphere we've found at Harry's West, we were really looking forward to seeing how the brand name had translated to Harry's East Side location, open for about a year-and-a-half a mile or so south of St. Clair Square in Fairview Heights.
Two words: New Coke.
It's not that I'd avoid Harry's East altogether if I happened to live or be in the neighborhood. It's a well-designed space, with a large central dining room -- dimmed but with individual tables lit -- wrapped partway with a rim of tables separated by windows with open dark-wood blinds. As with the other two restaurants, live music is a staple in the large bar area, but it filters gently into the dining areas and isn't a distraction.
Our first visit was on a Tuesday evening, and the place was less than a quarter full. This observation isn't meant to be a commentary on the popularity of the place, because Tuesdays are slow throughout the restaurant biz and the dining area holds easily upwards of 100. Rather, it's a basis on which to evaluate the service we received, which was polite and knowledgeable when it was there but disappeared for inordinately long periods, especially just about the time we were hoping to get our bill. Diner to member of serving staff: "Could you ask our waiter to bring us the check?" Serving staff to diner: "Who was your waiter?" Oops.
Conversely, the place was hoppin' on a Friday night, and our server that evening was exemplary, popping by frequently but not too often, recommending this and steering us away from that, even pointing out that the portion size on one of the appetizers might be enough for two (obviously not seeing my beltline below the horizon of the tabletop).
And there were certainly things to like, including the calamari that the server had suggested was more than generous in portion. Indeed it was, with delicate breading, tender squid and a pleasantly spicy chipotle mayo. The scampi appetizer was also well prepared, gently aromatic with garlic, but for 9 bucks I would have preferred either more than four shrimp or slightly larger specimens.
They also had very good tomatoes for so early in the year -- the fruity but acidic kind, probably Romas -- which appeared in the bruschetta, scampi, salad and gnocchi. That final dish was notable, too, for its tangible dose of rosemary. The Norwegian salmon was artfully done in a preparation that requires deft timing -- the fish had a crispy, almost crustlike exterior but was fully cooked inside, without going too far over into a mushy texture -- and the use of Yukon Gold potatoes indicated a penchant for quality ingredients.
Still, there were any number of low counterpoints that just aren't acceptable in a restaurant charging $15-$20 for most of its entrées. The most basic sin was blandness -- no flavor from the fresh basil that supposedly topped the bruschetta appetizer, virtually no spicing at all to the "hardy" (I believe they meant "hearty") broth that accompanied the Yankee pot roast and an "off" taste in what appeared to be flash-fried spinach (which tasted of oil if it had any taste at all) on top of the salmon. The gnocchi was heavy and gummy, and the crème brûlée was served cold -- on purpose, I assume, but it was a bit shocking at first bite and left a weird feeling to the broiled crust on top.
We didn't get the chance to explore every avenue on the menu during two visits -- for instance, some out-there pizza choices (Buffalo-wing-flavored chicken breast with blue cheese, as well as fresh-Caesar-salad-and-five-cheese pizza). And we gave good marks to the wine list, which sported something like 80 bottles -- a little heavier on the reds than on the whites -- and fairly moderate prices.
Although we had been over-ignored on our first visit, the weekend evening brought out both a manager and the chef, in addition to our waitress, with the traditional "How was everything?" query. I've often wondered how many people respond negatively to such a question. Unfortunately, I feel compelled to here. The elegant neon that touts the Harry's name among the overflow of chain restaurants and strip malls that line Illinois 159 should stand for a certain level of quality that the other Harry's locations have established. From this chair, it appears, it's letting its siblings down.
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