Iris, a restaurant in the Hilton Hotel on the Medical College of Ohio campus, radiates neo-classical elegance. The three-tiered room creates an understated welcome with gray tones, modernistic glass-block chandeliers, a sculpted ceiling, and beautiful shadowboxes decorating one wall. The tables are abloom with cloth flowers and white linen, and the entire effect is hushed and soothing.
Interrupting that classic tableau, however, is the music piped in through the speakers. Where you might expect standards sung by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, instead you get Bill Haley and the Comets and the Everly Brothers - 1950s rock and roll that's incongruous to the general look and feel of the place.
No matter. Food was on the way, and the first appetizer suggested we were in for a night of very good eating. Smoked salmon rolls, wrapped in roasted peppers and cream cheese, provided a delectable introduction to dinner. The salads were also inviting - a small Caesar enlivened by creamy dressing and fresh lemon; garden salad with thick cucumber slices, onions, and cherry tomatoes, and a fruit salad of melon and strawberries.
We also thought ourselves lucky when the hostess explained that the night was "open bottle night" - a nice selection of especially good red and white wines uncorked at the entrance and offered for only $4 a glass.
Well, it turned out that after the first glass, the bottles were inexplicably expended, even though there was only a smattering of customers that night.
Then came the second appetizer, a $6.95 roasted vegetable quesadilla smothered in portobello mushrooms and white cheese. Unfortunately, it came wrapped in a flour tortilla burnt black on the bottom, rendering the dish inedible.
Thus began a downward spiral of both food and service. In such a lovely room, could it have been a shortage of help in the kitchen that night? Or a server who appeared to have been thrown into the fray with no experience? Or what appeared to be some sort of raucous Hawaiian party in the adjoining room, stealing help from Iris?
Whatever the reason, the promise of a good dining experience diminished rapidly.
The $18.95 mahi-mahi, for instance, served with mango and pineapple, should have been tender and juicy, but it came out dry and ordinary, probably the result of too much time under the infra-red lights. The potato-crusted whitefish ($16.95) was not only dry, but when I tried to take a forkful of the accompanying garlic smashed potatoes, the entire lump came up, testing the resolve of both the fork and our patience. And the garlic chicken ($16.95) was so burnt as to spoil what could have been a memorable entr<0x00E9>e.
The server, much to our chagrin and his own, seemed to be totally out of his element - adrift, unsure of the menu and the pronunciation of the wines, and absent for long periods between courses. Eventually, the hostess leaped to the rescue as best she could, a smile set grimly in place.
A subsequent lunch trip turned out better in almost all regards, thank goodness. Even though a $2.95 crock of bean and sausage soup contained only three or four tiny bites of sausage, the flavor was hearty. And a $7.95 order of chicken Malibu - marinated, grilled breast of chicken blanketed in provolone and bacon, hit the spot. The server also was excellent - prompt, smiling, and attentive to the least little need.
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