It's tough being the kid sister -- especially when big sis has beauty, brains, and a brilliant track record. While Mom and Dad throw the bulk of their resources in her direction, you're the one who winds up doing the grunt work, overburdened, underappreciated, and generally left to pick up the slack.
So spoke my inner sociologist as we slipped into our seats at Paws, in Aurora's tony Bertram Inn & Conference Center. As the inn's "casual dining" alternative to the glamorous Four-Diamond Leopard, Paws, we suspected, could easily fall into the unenviable role of younger sib -- doomed to crank out an endless stream of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for travelers, business types, and local residents alike -- while her pampered, special-occasion sister, Leopard, enjoys the luxury of doing just one thing and doing it well.
Two visits later, the inner sociologist, alas, seems to have been correct: While Paws' kitchen shows some muscle, the overall dining experience hardly lives up to the pedigree of its sophisticated elder sib.
I mean, just look around the place. While only a red velvet curtain separates Paws from Leopard, the ambiance is a hundred miles removed. Instead of an intimate little salon, for instance, Paws is a big, open rectangle of a room, with all the coziness of a party center. Instead of white linens, we found bare tabletops, which -- at least during the days leading up to Christmas -- sported red-and-green plastic place mats. And rather than relaxing to the sounds of soothing background music, we endured loud pop tunes, the idiotic flickering of three television sets, and the occasional stream of cigarette smoke from diners at both the long, marble-topped bar and nearby tables. (A separate, nonsmoking dining room is usually available, says hotel president George Kimson; unfortunately for us, it was booked for a private party during that weeknight visit.)
Even more telling, though, is Paws' enormous "something for everyone" dinner menu -- which, it turns out, is so vast that it extends to three separate documents.
On the primary menu, diners will find 10 soups and starters, ranging from chicken tenders to barbecued crawfish; 5 meal-sized salads; 9 sandwiches, including a 16-ounce Kobe-beef burger at $25.95; and 13 à la carte entrées -- everything from bacon-wrapped wild-mushroom meatloaf to a Kurobuta pork chop with a plum-and-ginger glaze.
Should that somehow not be enough, there's also a small secondary menu, listing assorted fondues and wood-oven-fired pizzas. And finally, there's a sushi menu (at least sometimes -- the sushi bar's hours of operation seem somewhat unpredictable), with all the usual maki rolls, nigiri sushi, and sashimi, as well as a list of specialty rolls with such R-rated names as the Orgasm and the 69 Roll.
If all this doesn't smack of a restaurant in search of an identity, we'll eat our Uggs. Yet despite this sort of shotgun approach to menu-planning, it turns out that, in most cases, Paws' food is the best part of a visit. (That being the case, we weren't surprised to learn that Executive Chef Matthew Mathlage presides over the menus for both Paws and Leopard, and that the food for both spots comes off the same line.)
Take one night's cheese fondue, for instance, a silken, slightly smoky meltdown of Gouda with a touch of Zin, which two of us shared as a starter. (Okay, so what we actually ordered was the traditional Swiss-cheese fondue . . . Despite our initial reservations, though, we soon became quite fond of the slightly more aggressive Gouda.) To go with, there was a fine assortment of goodies, including tender-crisp broccoli florets, stalks of flowery broccolini, wedges of a giant portobello mushroom cap, crusty bread cubes, crescents of zucchini and yellow squash, apple slices, and morsels of boiled redskin potatoes. We dipped, swirled, and repeated until we were in serious danger of busting a button, yet we came nowhere near polishing off the mini-banquet, which easily could have served four. Better still, at a flat $14, the fondue turned out to be one of the best values on any of the menus!
Plump, lush blue-crab cakes proved to be another providential choice -- the crab's fresh, nutty flavor enhanced with honey and Boursin, and cheerfully unencumbered by excessive breadcrumbs, mayonnaise, or other distracting fillers. Beneath the three cakes, a bed of creamed corn added a touch of sweetness; on top, slender strands of roasted red pepper, with a hint of whole-grain mustard, lent contrapuntal piquancy. In fact, if only it hadn't been merely lukewarm by the time it was served, the dish might have rated a diamond or two of its own.
Unfortunately, we couldn't get that excited over the indulgent-sounding American Kobe beef burger, available in either 8- or 16-ounce sizes. Butter-tender, yes. But its natural flavor was so thoroughly masked by teriyaki sauce that it could have been made from just about anything. Equally irritating: While the burger could be had in either small or large sizes, the sturdy, chewy bun apparently came in one size only -- and that was at least twice as big as the 8-ounce patty! Served with a side of frozen waffle fries and a little tub of ketchup, what was basically half a sandwich checked in at a whopping $14.95.
For beef lovers, our Saturday-night prime-rib dinner -- starring a juicy, well-trimmed, 10-ounce slab of meat, hearty mashed potatoes, and a bundle of perfectly roasted asparagus tips -- would have been a sweeter deal. And while we still can't imagine why a humble chicken breast, served with a mildly spiced "ragout" of black beans and lean chorizo, and a sweet and fruity "salsa" of canned mandarin oranges and cilantro (the Chicken Brazil), should prove to be one of the priciest items on the menu, it was a tasty dish -- and one that a chicken-loving companion said he'd order again in a heartbeat. (An unimaginative side salad, composed of iceberg lettuce, half a pale tomato, threads of cucumber and carrot, and a sweet, dark balsamic vinaigrette, added four more bucks to the tab.)
Unfortunately, we can't tell you too much about the sushi. On a weeknight, the sushi bar was unexpectedly closed, due to the sushi chef's illness, and on the following Saturday, it was offering only an "express" menu. Both a California roll and a spicy tuna roll were fresh-flavored and generously filled -- even if the "spicy" tuna version turned out to be less than zippy. And because the sushi bar is a one-man operation, the downtime between ordering and eating was more than 20 minutes. But neither of the "inside-out" style rolls were works of visual art: Unevenly sliced, with the rice sloughing off the nori wrappers even before they reached the table, they looked decidedly amateurish.
"Amateurish" could equally well describe the service in the crowded, nonsmoking dining room on that busy Saturday night, which started off well intentioned but unraveled from there, until we almost imagined we had "Kick Me" signs taped to the backs of our jackets. At tables all around us, for example, servers were pouring ice water -- but none was poured for us. Similarly, throughout the dining room, staffers were delivering thick slices of bread and coy little butterballs -- but none was served to us. As for a wine menu? Not until we requested it. And that sushi? Not even mentioned as a possibility, until we asked.
Happily, it had been a different story during the earlier weeknight visit, when the main dining room was less than a quarter occupied. Although we had to ask to see the wine menu that time too, at least we were kept well provisioned with water and bread. And rather than merely offering a string of apologies for oversights and gaffes, our waiter proved proactive, professional, and proficient.
All of which has left our covert sociologist in an absolute dither: Is Paws a potentially delightful little restaurant with a treatable case of ADD, she wonders? Or is it a sort of idiot savant, whose dull and faint existence is sometimes illuminated with fleeting sparks of brilliance?
Our overt restaurant critic, on the other hand, entertains no such conundrums. Unimpressed but undeterred, she's satisfied merely to tiptoe away on her little cat feet.
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