Native Bay: A Review

So, the lovely A________ and I went to Native Bay for our fifth anniversary dinner last night. If you're not from around here, Native Bay is a converted supper club perched on the edge of Lake Wissota, about a twenty-minute drive from Eau Claire. The restaurant has lived in its current incarnation for three or four years, and is now a nouvelle-trendy, small-food-big-plates place with a menu that emphasizes local organic ingredients. We've been there four or five times: we like the idea of the place, there's a very pleasant view of the lake, and the interior is done up in an interesting contemporary/organic/industrial style with lots of bamboo and recycled wood: as Eau Claire goes, it wins the ambiance prize hands down (second place is Mona Lisa's, which is noisy and feels kind of cavernous and hectic in comparison).

You can't really have a meal at Native Bay (appetizers, two entrees, wine by the glass, coffee and dessert) for under $100, and it's not unusual to hit $150 with tip. Last night we ordered a bottle of champagne and so were well above that. Our past experiences with Native Bay have been, well, interesting: there's been a certain unevenness to the cooking, shall we say, a consistently annoying stinginess to the portions, and the service has been excellent to spacey/inattentive. Still, we're full of optimism. We have a babysitter! It's spring at last! Neither of us is completely exhausted! So, we arrive and are greeted and seated quickly: nice table by the window, bottle of Veuve Cliquot on ice, per my request. All good so far. We're given water, apparently free of charge! And we wait. For something like fifteen minutes. For the waiter to finally get around to opening and serving the bottle of champagne for us; I'm about to do it myself when he arrives at last. Not good. We wait maybe another fifteen-to-twenty to place our orders—there are a grand total of two other tables seated in the dining room at this point, so it's anybody's guess why it's taking so long. Eventually, a girl strolls past with a basket of bread, from which she's dispensing 2"x3" slices with a pair of tongs. We flag her down. The lovely A_________, ravenous by now, asks for TWO pieces. Bread girl seems shocked, but forks them over. She does not return. We wait again.

At long last, the appetizers arrive. Yay! Food! We ordered three (I know—big spenders): a pork tenderloin medallion dish, a walleye-cake dish, and a carrot-apple soup. The soup is fine (if smallish), although the lovely A_________ makes a carrot-ginger soup that flat kicks its ass. The pork medallions (two of them for $9) are roughly the size of fifty-cent pieces, served on dense, spongy little pancakes (made of I-don't-know-what; something buckwheat-like), and drizzled with a brownish sauce. The pork is a bit dry, and barely warmer than room temperature. Worse, it's utterly without flavor of any sort, almost as though it's been intentionally de-flavorized, somehow. Because it's a restaurant that takes itself a little too seriously, there's no freaking salt and pepper on the table. The little pancakes taste like, well, pancakes, but chewier. The brown sauce tastes brown and earthy, which is to say, a bit like dirt. Not a promising start.

The walleye cakes (two of them, each about an inch-and-a-half square by 1/4" thick, also $9) are dense, greasy to the point of sogginess, and again served at approximately room temp. One appetizer out of three doesn't suck: a good average in baseball, not so great for a "fine dining" joint that runs fitty bones per plate.

Meanwhile, one table over, there's a small drama unfolding: a woman is unhappy with her meal and has sent it back to the kitchen. Shortly thereafter it returns (via waitress), apparently unaltered. The woman seems distressed; she's holding the plate and making little gestures of annoyance at the food. There's much discussion back and forth, which I would pay money to be able to hear. The woman and her husband/date depart soon after. They're not smiling. Is this an omen, I wonder? Perhaps. I pour another tot of champagne.

Post appetizers, there's another lengthy wait. Then, finally, the entrees arrive: the lovely A_________ has ordered a lamb dish, I've gotten a beef tenderloin. Mine is fine: a reasonably generous portion squatting in a sort of mashed-potato foxhole, surrounded by a decorative drizzle of sauce with some wine-soaked mushrooms. Nicely cooked, seasoned and presented, but pricey at $32. The lamb, though, is small and a bit stringy: three thin slices half-hidden in some artfully arranged garnish. It's also barely warmer than the table, say. I resolve to mention this to the waiter, but he does not return to ask how things are. The lovely A_______ , now faint from hunger, eats the cold, tendinous lamb anyway. I give her several bites of tenderloin, generous soul that I am.

The waiter returns at last, as we're finishing up. "And how was everything?" he asks. Past tense.

"The lamb was cold," I say. "But we were hungry so we ate it anyway."

Waiter looks unhappy. "I'll go check with the kitchen," he says. He returns shortly, positively despondent now, with an offer of free desserts. I'm guessing they're coming out of his paycheck.

"Fine," we say. We're still hungry, after all. The desserts arrive after another wait (a bread pudding and a coffee creme brulee), and are again a mixed bag: the creme brulee is fine if unremarkable, but the bread pudding is, in the lovely A_______'s words, lame.

In all, it was a delightful and romantic evening (I'd be happy sitting on a rock, as long as the lovely A__________ was nearby), interrupted by a disappointing and expensive meal. I think we've given up on Native Bay, though considering the sparseness of the Friday night crowd I'm guessing we're not the only ones who've reached that conclusion. Who knows—maybe the universe will come to its senses and Native Bay will revert to supper club in the not-too-distant future (the sooner the better, as far as I'm concerned). When/if that happens, I'll take the large order of prime rib, please.

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