After waiting breathlessly for three long years for Arcadian to bloom, one has to admit that a menu populated with pizza, fried chicken, french fries and popcorn — scooped from a theater-style popper perched behind the bar — is bound to underwhelm a diner regardless how good they taste. But the blame for that feeling shouldn't rest at the feet of chef-owners Cory and Rebecca Hess; it was the protracted construction process that upended all timetables, budgets and, ultimately, our expectations.
When all of this began, the plan was to replace the ragtag City Grill with an "approachable, neighborhood-friendly gastropub." But as the project grew more and more complicated, shifting from a modest makeover to a complete gut and rebuild, those original menu strategies no longer felt right, explains Rebecca Hess.
"It was going to be a lot more casual, but as the space evolved, as the build-out kept going and going, the original concept didn't fit," the chef admits.
Complicating matters was that damn pizza oven, a nonnegotiable piece of kitchen equipment by order of the silent investor. That — along with the adorably named Henny Penny commercial pressure fryer — dictated that regardless how sexy, stunning and "award-winning" the interior design of the restaurant would become, lowly pizza and fried chicken would be on the tables.
In an attempt to live up to the room, perhaps, the chefs jazzed things up, adding upmarket dishes like a caviar tasting, seafood tower and surf and turf tartare. While the end result is a menu (and restaurant) that lacks a well-defined identity, it's a formula that likely works better for the neighborhood than the original plan of attack. Arcadian, in its present form, can accommodate a wide range of tastes and budgets, from the weekday happy hour to the weekend date night.
That pizza sits elevated on a rack above almost every table in the house. At first glance, it has nothing in common with the round, thin and blistered pizzas du jour and everything in common with thick delivery-style pizza. But the rectangular-shaped pies are delicious to the point of obsession. Akin to Detroit-style, these guys sport an airy focaccia-like dough that takes on a crusty, shiny shell where it meets the sheet pan. And unlike those delicate Neapolitan pies, these sturdy chassis can support medleys like pepperoni, kale, mozzarella and chiles ($14); sausage, mushrooms, onions, pickled peppers and smoked blue cheese ($15); and even clams, bacon, breadcrumbs and herbed butter ($16).
The Henny Penny turns out predictably appealing fried chicken ($21), served on a sheet pan with bright, crunchy slaw, mini corn muffins, honey butter and a cruet of perky hot sauce. A shatteringly crisp and corny crust gives way to a plume of steam, a fragrant hint of the juicy white and dark meat to come.
Patrons seated at the gleaming, glacier-white bar enjoy snacks like a firm, smoky and candy-sweet salmon ($12) set against bright Asian herbs, pickled red onion and spry jalapeno wheels. A bowl of lightly smoked and chilled mussels ($11) is accompanied by a lemony aioli perfect for dipping. I'm not sure if the french fries are $11 because of the setting or because of the "Jacobsen sea salt," which sounds like something Lady Macbeth might use in an attempt to remove stubborn blood stains. Either way, they are wonderful fries.
I never pulled the trigger on the seafood platter, a "market-price" splurge boasting oysters, clams, shrimp, crab and mussels, but I did spring for the $18 flatiron supplement to the Eggs & Bacon ($12) and regretted it. Flawless on their own, the crispy shredded potato cakes, rich and meaty pork belly, poached eggs and buttered toast soldiers gained nothing by the addition of the steak, which had an unappealing chemical smoke flavor to it.
We had zero regrets about the Seafood Stew ($28), a complex and satisfying brew flush with crab claws, mussels, fish and potatoes; or the popcorn grits & shrimp ($14), a starter that eats like a meal thanks to a bevy of sweet and meaty shrimp seated in a corny porridge kissed with kernels.
From the bar comes a tight selection of draft and bottled wines (fizz, white, red), draft, canned and bottled beers (local, regional, global) and progressive cocktails like the Wicked Brit ($11), an intoxicating blend of Earl Grey tea-infused gin, amaro and lemon soda, and the Puesta Del Sol ($11), made with mescal and a corn-jalapeno shrub.
Arcadian has the ring of a utopian society, where inhabitants live in peaceful harmony with their surroundings. Pizza and fried chicken might not look at home in a million-dollar architectural trophy, but then again, Utopia is pure fiction.