Low Tide

Watercolors Café is far from being a masterpiece

Dec 15, 2004 at 4:00 am
As much as I dislike chain restaurants, I wish the new Watercolors Café, occupying the former KC Masterpiece spot on North Lindbergh Boulevard, had more in common with the Watercolors Café in Boca Raton, Florida, that popped up when I Googled the name just for fun. Both places are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Both have a Floridian maritime theme. One overlooks the waterfront; the other, Lindbergh.

But alas -- despite the nautical theme, bright color scheme and ocean murals -- the Midwest version (whose signage reads: "Come in for a taste of Florida") is more like an upscale Denny's than a transplanted Florida-coast restaurant. (Or an IHOP, which is where co-owner Julia Stoops worked for fourteen years. The other owners are her husband, Jerry, and Mike Henry.) Actually, Watercolors Café is more like the defunct Coco's down the street, which once served three meals a day in the culinary wasteland that is the stretch of Lindbergh between Highway 40 and Page Avenue.

I happen to like those breakfast-lunch-dinner places, knowing that I can walk in nearly any hour of the day and get a reasonably satisfying meal rather cheaply. In short: My expectations are not high. With a seven-days-a-week, fifteen-hour-a-day schedule, the owners of Watercolors Café have taken a decidedly all-things-to-all-people-all-the-time approach -- from cheap breakfasts to burger and sandwich lunches to a dinner menu featuring entrées hovering around twenty bucks.

And that's where things start to fall apart.

I was excited walking from my car one morning, as the aroma of pancakes, bacon and eggs wafted through the parking lot, further increasing the anticipation for my favorite meal of the day. It didn't take long for disappointment to set in. The shredded Cheddar on my cheese-and-sausage omelet (early-bird special, $4.19) was barely melted, and the sausage was merely bits of overdone patties crumbled on top. The seasoned potatoes -- bagged cubes that could have used more time on the stove -- were also a letdown.

Despite the tasty big and fluffy pancakes ($3.29), my biggest complaint was that the omelet and potatoes just weren't hot enough. There's something quite unsatisfying about a lukewarm breakfast on a chilly morning.

Food temperature seems to be a major challenge for the kitchen, with the exception of the tomato-basil soup I had with my stuffed pork chop for dinner one evening. Not only did it seem to be superheated by some nuclear reactor in the back, but it tasted as if canned tomato soup was used as the base and doctored with pieces of canned tomatoes and slivers of fresh basil. At $12, the thick chop was nicely charbroiled, even if the stuffing inside was bland and the brown maple glaze was a bit gloppy, as if again something canned was used as the base and then thickened too quickly. Sliced apples, sautéed and then glazed with a sweet-tasting sauce, were a nice touch as I dined next to the blazing fireplace-in-the-round in the separate room partitioned off by thin bamboo shades.

All entrées include your choice of soup or salad and potatoes, rice pilaf or vegetable. The vegetable, a corn-carrot-green-bean medley that I saw pass by on other plates, looked to be of the frozen variety. I chose the mashed potatoes (again, lukewarm), and I'm still trying to figure out the odd flavor; perhaps it was the dryness that belied the fact that these were, thankfully, real spuds. The salad, crisp and cold, was enhanced with fresh greens, but the house mango dressing that sounded so good when described by the waiter turned out to be nothing more than a Wish-Bone-type Italian dressing spiked with mango juice.

Service can also be spotty at Watercolors. Immediately after finishing our spinach dip appetizer (too runny, too bland and, of course, not hot enough), our entrées arrived. We were expecting clam chowder, beer-cheese soup and salads in between. No such luck. Forgoing the soup and salad, we tucked into the grilled mahi-mahi fillet and meat loaf.

The fillet seemed fresh but would have been improved by the removal of the dark lateral line that runs through this variety of fish. The accompanying mango relish lacked zing; the rice pilaf consisted of plump, separate grains of rice -- as pilaf should -- but the lack of seasoning provided no contrast or pleasure. And the thick slice of meat loaf, baked rather then grilled -- you'd think at least that entrée would come out piping hot. But no. And the mashed potatoes resting under the slab were even cooler.

Watercolors Café's atmosphere evokes the relaxed casualness of the Florida Gulf Coast. But for now, the owners' ambition and reach seems to exceed their grasp -- something I expected when I first perused the multi-page menu.

Even the house-made Key lime pie, though it had a tart and tangy filling, came in just under the "wow" radar. But if diners are going to fork out $22 for filet mignon, $23 for crab cakes and $17 to $19 for fish dishes, the wowness factor had better run high throughout, from food to service.