Before I'd ever eaten any of chef Zach Meloy's cooking, I watched along with the rest of his followers on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter as he and his wife Cristina realized the dream of opening their own restaurant. First, there was the supper club PushStart Kitchen. Held in a Goat Farm loft, it was an endeavor the love-struck couple started after moving here from Cristina's home of Costa Rica, where they met. We watched from afar as Cristina's belly grew with their first child, as that child went from newborn to toddler, and as their other baby, Better Half, went from a crowd-funded Kickstarter campaign to a working Modern American restaurant with Latin influences. The name is a nod to the restaurant they ran in Costa Rica called Media Naranja, a colloquialism that translates to "half an orange" and is used to refer to someone as your "other half."
Because I knew all of this about their love story and entrepreneurial ambitions, I felt invested in their future. I wanted to see them succeed. Yet after dining at the restaurant, no amount of romantic backstory or baby pictures could cover up some glaring issues that, if addressed, would make Better Half, well, better.
Given the couple's history and the chef's travels throughout Latin America, there is a surprising lack of vibrancy and warmth in Better Half's dining room design. Located in a small Westside space on 14th Street, the walls are painted dreary dark grays and blues. There are personal touches, many of them holdovers from their dinner party beginnings, such as the hand-painted ceramic Costa Rican bird whistles on each table and the bookshelves. The shelves hold the dishes and glassware, along with stacks of mason jars filled to the brim with spices, and a stuffed penguin.
A reclaimed wood counter and stools surround the open kitchen where Meloy and sous chef Jonathan Miller (previously of Woodfire Grill and Cakes & Ale) hold court while preparing a menu that changes nightly. It's a good place to interact with the chef, who seems genuinely interested in chatting with his customers.
Meloy's generally skillful and creative cooking gives me hope that success is inevitable. Whole roasted baby carrots peppered a plate of sopes (fried fresh masa circles) filled with carrot purée and topped with slabs of crisped sous-vide pork belly. The sweet vegetable tempered the salty fat of the pork and the creamy masa brought to mind the chef's post-culinary school travels through Latin America. A simple starter of grilled romaine halves with sweet charred onions, sharp pickled radish, and garlicky homemade ranch dressing was somehow both a jolt to the palate and comforting.
Juicy cubes of sous-vide pork loin encrusted with a smoky rub were the right shade of blush pink and a reminder that a skilled chef can transform even the most boring cut of meat into something exquisite. The pork was paired with a white bean tacu, a Peruvian-style bean cake. It was creamy, wildly addictive, and resembled an indulgent potato gratin you'd get at a fancy steakhouse. Served with candied green tomato chutney and smoked chile pudding, the radically different flavors complemented each other beautifully.
But some of the dishes Meloy intently composes in front of his audience would benefit from some editing. The chef is obviously enamored with molecular gastronomy, but shows his inexperience with the techniques given his heavy-handed use of additives such as agar powder (often used as a vegetarian gelatin substitute). Not to say Modernist cuisine is inherently fussy, but each element should have a purpose and play well with the other ingredients.
An otherwise excellent starter of crunchy black-eyed pea falafel with olive gelée and puréed avocado suffered from the bizarre addition of a glossy slice of pressed shrimp terrine and dollops of mint jelly. The shrimp, so aggressive with Old Bay seasoning, overwhelmed the olive gelée's briny brilliance. A salad shaped into a stunning landscape of precisely placed asparagus with farmer's cheese, grapefruit, and pancetta somehow managed to lack enough salt and acid.
The one constant on the menu is the silk handkerchief pasta. Handmade lasagna noodles are bathed in a creamy porcini cream sauce and dotted with hunks of meaty mushrooms. The dish is a sentimental one for the Meloys because it was the first Zach cooked for Cristina. It should be the kind of dish you'd return for, something every restaurant hopes to create. But it's topped with a cloying clump of red tomato marmalade that diminishes the dish's earthiness.
Meloy needs a dedicated pastry chef. Here he also employs unappetizing molecular techniques and many of the desserts are too sweet. The Mexican flan looked like a hunk of plastic and tasted overwhelmingly of that artificial cinnamon flavor Abuelita chocolate (instant Mexican hot chocolate) is known for. A lemon tart disappointed with its tooth-cracking crust and saccharine filling. The best sweet comes with your check: a silver tin holding traditional homemade Costa Rican milk truffles. The small beige orbs smack you in the face with the tropical flavors of condensed milk and coconut. They are the best dessert the restaurant is currently serving.
After four months without any alcohol, the restaurant secured a beer and wine license in April. The menu includes five beers (none local, but one Costa Rican), and a handful of whites, reds, and a single rosé and sparkling. No vintages are listed and the prices are on the higher end of the mark-up spectrum. The Quintay Pinot Noir from Chile and the Spanish reds pair well with the pork and beef dishes, while the Argentinean rosé and Spanish Verdejo complement the lighter and more Latin-influenced dishes, appetizers, and nightly fish specials.
A month ago, Zach posted on Facebook, "Small business fun fact: owning a restaurant is TERRIFYING." How could you not feel for the guy? Empathy, however, is only good for one visit. Although service is competent and friendly, the overall dining experience and food need to be honed if Better Half wants to grow its client base beyond the small group of loyal PushStart devotees. Staying power can only come from the chef doing what's often the most difficult thing for someone running the show: editing oneself.
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