Let's start with the obvious. Ria Pell, owner of Ria's Bluebird and Patio Daddy-O BBQ, is a character. She has an obvious attachment to – what shall we call it? – retro blue-collar aesthetics. Before she opened the Bluebird, she briefly operated a restaurant in Little Five Points where the décor was literally meant to replicate a mobile home's.
I'm never sure whether Ria is really invested in this look or views it as camp, an aesthetic that takes pleasure in dubious taste that is highly exaggerated for comic effect. In any case, her new restaurant, Sauced (753 Edgewood Ave., 404-688-6554), draws on the aesthetics of the late '50s and early '60s and is her best-looking venue yet, with only a few campy flourishes.
The woodwork was done mainly by Ted Bodnar, formerly general manager at Creative Loafing. The walls are paneled with salvaged wood that reminded me of the dens of my childhood homes. But there are indeed campy flourishes on the walls, from a bar mural of drunken pink elephants to flea-market taxidermy finds such as framed antlers and a fish. Copper mallard ducks take flight on the back wall. Giant table lamps warm the rear room. Sounds awful, but it works.
The most pleasing effect to me is the curvy banquettes. They increase the sense of coziness in the two dining rooms, where the lighting resembles firelight. There's a full bar. However – warning! – Sauced does not accept credit cards. Yes, it's cash only. There's an ATM machine in the dining room, but if you don't bring cash and don't have a debit card, plan to wash dishes. I don't much like this growing trend toward accepting cash only, but I remind myself that it keeps the banks from collecting its bloated fees from small businesses.
I've visited Sauced twice during the first two weeks of its operation, so this is definitely a first look. I should note, too, that I know Ria and one of her employees there, so I was recognized. The staff generally is courteous and friendly. I might mention that we were seated before speakers in the rear during both visits and that made hearing difficult. Our server, otherwise delightful, tended to mumble and I kept turning to Wayne and barking, like a man whose hearing aid has gone dead, "What? Can you understand what he's saying? What did he say?" Wayne couldn't make him out, either, but is better at nodding and pretending to hear.
The menu is, as expected, comfort food with retro touches. Sauces do figure in many of the dishes but no more than usual in my experience. I wondered if "sauced" referred to inebriation instead of flavoring. Whatever, most of the food was good.
The menu's standout is a take on beef Wellington. This dish is still doubtlessly cooked by many at home and available in some restaurants, though I don't recall seeing it in years. In its pure form, it's a tenderloin spread with pâté de foie gras and duxelles, then wrapped in sturdy pastry and baked. I remember eating the dish when I was a kid at places like the Ambassador and the Coach and Six.
In Ria's version, braised short ribs substitute for the ternderloin, and mustard subs for the pâté. The duxelles appears as itself. It's served over a rich demi-glace with roasted Brussels sprouts. Undoubtedly, purists will find this dish annoying. I liked it a lot. True, the Colman mustard paint is a loud substitute for classy pâté and I thought it was almost overpowering. But the rest of the dish worked very well.
I've also enjoyed the "ribs confit" – a generous portion of meaty spare ribs simmered in bacon fat for six hours, according to our server. I know I sound implacable, but while the mustard seemed a bit strong for the short ribs, the spare ribs needed a shot of piquancy to be perfect. They were served with red cabbage and sweet-potato fries.
The only dish I haven't liked much is the stroganoff with hand-cut pasta. It features a porcini broth, wild mushrooms, crème fraîche and "nauga-bone," some kind of Naugahyde-like vegetarian impersonation of meat. Actually, it wasn't the Nauga-bone that put me off as much as the thick consistency of the dish. Wayne wiped the plate clean, though, so maybe it's just me. He was equally enthusiastic about his other entrée, blackened cod with grits, fontina cheese and tomato chutney. I liked it, although I'm not a fan of blackening fish, but if any fish deserves it, it's bland cod.
Starters, like the entrées, are mainly familiar dishes with occasional tweaking. There are crunchy black-eyed pea fritters served with three different sauces – sweet, hot and smoky. Southern dolmas, with collard leaves substituting for grape leaves, were surprisingly satisfying. In fact, the fresh collard leaf adds more taste than the usual processed grape leaves. Their filling included dates, pecans and brown rice. They were served with tahini and an addictive oregano-feta yogurt sauce.
I've also sampled the char-grilled head of romaine lettuce with Caesar dressing and the rosemary-skewered chicken livers with fennel-apple jam and toasted brioche. Both are solid preparations.
We've tried three desserts. The first one was made of lemon custard between two ginger cookies. It had great flavor but was basically impossible to eat. The cookies, dipped in icing, became so hard, we had to stab them with our knives to break them up. It has been removed from the menu and replaced by a lemon icebox pie.
Wayne, a sucker for anything that includes chocolate and vanilla ice cream, ordered the warm fudge brownie sundae at our second visit. Espresso ganache, nuts and mascarpone whipped cream gave it a lift, but it's not the kind of dessert I like. My favorite was a spice cake made with roasted parsnips, served with brown-butter pears and salted caramel ice cream. More, I want more.
My overall verdict after two weeks: a really charming venue and a great place to drink and have a casual meal. Don't expect refined gourmet food and you'll be happy.
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