Well, I went out las' night
To score me some eats.
I stopped off at Wilbert's
And found some real treats.
The chorizo-stuffed peppers
They call Cherry Bombs,
And a grilled grouper sangwich
And spicy lasag
All were great!
An' we ate an' we ate an' we ate.
Now we ain't got room for nothin',
We got the full-belly blues . . .
-- Blind Lemon Pledge
Okay, so that's not really an ol' blues standard, and that great roots musician, Blind Lemon Pledge, is just a figment of our imagination. But with any luck, guests at Wilbert's Food & Music will at least recognize the tune after spending an evening in this funky, friendly venue in the heart of the Gateway District. For while not all of the food wails, there's enough flavorful, well-crafted fare here to alleviate almost any hunger.
One part bar, one part restaurant, and one part music showcase, owner Mike Miller's newest venture (successor to the original Wilbert's Bar & Grille, formerly located on St. Clair) is spacious, spare, and comfortable, with sleek black dining tables, a row of cozy U-shaped booths, and dim, moody lighting.
There's a small stage and an even smaller dance floor, tucked into a corner at one end of the long, well-stocked bar. No flowers or candlelight here, and the napkins are plain, white paper. But the room gets a big injection of hip-itude from the dozens of in-performance photos of entertainers -- everyone from Koko Taylor and Nils Lofgren to Junior Wells and Albert Collins -- who have played at one or another of Miller's clubs over the past two decades. And when recently scheduled performers like Otis Taylor, Adrian Legg, or even Beausoleil take the stage, it's easy to imagine that the eyes (and ears) of their own wall-mounted heroes are smiling down upon them.
In this music-centric universe, Wilbert's long menu of lunch and dinner offerings seems particularly ambitious, with a wide-ranging repertoire that extends from burritos, nachos, and burgers to steak au poivre, prosciutto-stuffed chicken breast, and seared ahi tuna. Nor are those with vegetarian tendencies scorned: Big salads, a veggie burger, and a meat-free stew are among the daily options.
Portion sizes are generous and prices are reasonable, especially considering there's no cover charge for dinner guests who arrive before show time. Meal-sized salad prices max out at $8, for instance; entrées, which come with a crisp house salad of greens, carrots, cukes, and croutons, in a light, housemade balsamic vinaigrette, along with "dirty" rice and a blend of smartly seasoned vegetables, climb no higher than $16; and Monday through Saturday, the $5 lunch special might be anything from chicken paprikash to Mexican strata.
Besides the salad dressings, the kitchen crafts a daily soup, five desserts, and the juicy, sweet-hot salsa that wakes up an otherwise snoozy bean-and-cheese nacho platter. Many times -- as in the case of the dense, moist Southwestern Lasagna, stacked with spicy chorizo sausage and herbed cream cheese, and baked to a bubbling golden brown -- the results are lively and good tasting. But beware: The kitchen also takes an occasional stumble, turning out dishes that are dull and unmemorable, like an overcooked, flatfooted "jerked" chicken breast sandwich, served with a creamy cucumber "stealth" dressing -- by which we mean it was the gustatory equivalent of invisible. A haphazardly assembled grilled ahi tuna salad was also out of tune, the otherwise good flavors of sweet-smoky tuna and greens marred by hard, tasteless cubes of unripe mango and avocado. And homemade crème brûlée was just plain strange, its silken, Grand Marnier-flavored custard more or less ruined by a thick cap of barely warm brown sugar, instead of the properly thin, frangible crust of caramelized sweetness. (Note to kitchen: A brief stay beneath the oven broiler is no substitute for a small propane torch in this application.)
Like the other sandwiches that we sampled, the forgettable jerk chicken was served on a big, split ciabatta roll, and sided by a plastic tub of limp, apple-cider-splashed "Texas" cole slaw (yawn), as well as a pile of delicate, crunchy, hand-cut Russet potato chips (yowsa!). The dry chicken was only slightly bested by the spicy barbecued beef brisket sandwich, with its tough, chewy meat. But a pearly grilled grouper sandwich turned out to be a showstopper, with a plush mouth-feel and fine, smoky fragrance.
Salads also ranged from blah to boffo. If the ahi tuna salad was a disappointment, for instance, the giant mixed-greens Bistro Salad was the opposite, with a bounty of toasted pine nuts, dried cranberries, and coarsely crumbled blue cheese, moistened with a smooth, sweet-tart French dressing. And together with a big bowl of lobster bisque (the Saturday soup du jour) -- flavorful, amply endowed with shredded seafood, and not needlessly gummed up with starches or thickeners -- the salad made a delicious, inexpensive summer meal.
Sweat-inducing Cherry Bombs were a signature appetizer back at the original Wilbert's, and the present version -- long, hot banana peppers, stuffed with finely ground chorizo and cheese, dipped in a lacy cornmeal batter, and deep-fried until barely crisp -- still wring a plaintive, pleasurable moan from the taste buds, best soothed by one of the bar's 16 brews on draft. The international suds selection travels from Ireland's Guinness and Harp to Old Speckled Hen (U.K.), Paulaner Hefeweizen (Germany), and Great Lakes Brewing Company's Holy Moses; bottled beers the likes of Rolling Rock, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Corona Extra, and Red Stripe expand the itinerary.
Like the food, service at Wilbert's had its ups and downs. A lunch-hour waitress, for instance, seemed almost somnambulistic, going through the motions of providing service without actually doing so. And yet, she was somehow attentive enough to skillfully evade both our attempts to flag her down and our pointed reminders that we were on a relatively tight schedule -- and this despite the fact that we were one of only four or five parties in the entire restaurant! She didn't have much of a sense of humor, either. The ungrammatical "beary's and sweet cream" was a listed dessert, and when my buds and I tried to clarify exactly what type of exotic dish the peculiar spelling might represent, she stared at us as if we had just teleported down from Mars. (Manager Heather Seese, who also happens to be Miller's niece, later explained that the dessert was named after a friend called "Bear.")
On the other hand, a Saturday-night waiter was a gem -- friendly, efficient, and professional, able to intelligently discuss the food and drink, and concerned with our well-being, even after the joint was invaded by hordes of squealing bachelorettes. Plus, Miller's presence added a warm, personal vibe to the room, making it easy to forget that we were paying customers and letting us imagine, instead, that we had somehow bluffed our way into a hip private party.
All of which fuels our speculation that the four-month-old Wilbert's is still on the upside of its learning curve, and that with a little more time and attention, both the food and the service can become consistently, reliably good. After all, Miller's no neophyte: He knows if someone's gotta sing some low-down, dirty blues, they should be standing on his stage, and not sitting at a table in the dining room.
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