The Bronx is divided into wings. Walk into the vestibule and notice the bistro-ish dining nook off to the left with simple chairs and wooden tables that look like they absconded from the flea market in Canton. To the right is the bar. This is where booth benches are fashioned from weathered planks. This is where most of the noise is.
The vestibule is like a different world, divorced from its pub/bistro wings. The walls are aquamarine. Just behind the host/hostess apparatus is a black-and-white photograph of a twister. Superimposed on the photograph is a profile of a witch streaking across the sky on a broom--the Bronx Oz implication.
The Bronx isn't unlike that Oz tale, in that it seems to be timeless and fixed in a comfort zone with just enough color to keep the senses enticed. The Bronx opened in 1976, the same year Apple Computer and Microsoft were founded, the wine world was convulsed when California knocked out France in the great Paris Wine Tasting, Patty Hearst was found guilty of robbing a San Francisco bank and the Ramones released their first album, laying the pier and beam for the punk rock movement. Today, most of the original Ramones are dead, and Hearst has stretched her notoriety by taking bit parts in director John Waters' flicks and providing the voice for ex-stripper Haffa Dozen on Sci-Fi Channel's animated TV series Tripping the Rift. Then there is the iPod, white Zinfandel and the Windows spyware pandemic.
The Bronx is the unchanging bunny drummer in this mix. It has worn through three decades by keeping things consistent and in the same rough culinary box, avoiding trends and star power maneuvers even as alum such as Stephan Pyles, who waited tables and piloted a skillet at the Cedar Springs restaurant, juice the city with megawatt cookery.
Take this old soldier: Wilted spinach salad in balsamic vinaigrette, Gorgonzola, Parmesan, mozzarella and bacon. Doesn't this seem a prime candidate for creative pestering? Instead, it arrives the way a batch of thoughtfully presented leftovers might. "Watch out. The top plate is hot," blurts our server. And hot it is. Fingertips recoil. The salad must have been wilted in the oven. The hot plate rests atop a plate at room temp. The plates shift like plates do when they don't fit snuggly. The salad is a listless heap, a mound woven with a thick web of spinach stems--not thoroughly haphazard but not elegantly assembled either, not unlike the Ramones if you don't count the Converse footwear. Leaves are only slightly wilted. They're still crisp when bitten. Melted mozzarella tethers leaves to one another. The leaves are slightly oily. Despite the unkempt semblance, the salad is delicious with fresh deep green and supple leaves offset with rich, gritty bacon.
Melted cheese is far more critical to the three onion soup than it is to that spinach heap. It caps the crock within which simmers a crouton and a tangle of Spanish onions, leeks and caramelized shallots in a beef and chicken stock blend. The composition is simple, the broth staid in its absence of robust seasoning.
Run through the Bronx menu and you see a cast just as staid, one that could conceivably have been siphoned directly from a 1976 menu: London broil, bistro brisket, fried shrimp, meatloaf, turkey club, a Reuben. There are just a few hints of culinary evolution. One of them is the chicken artichoke mushroom sauté. It's a mess to look at; a confusion of capers, breaded artichokes, broccoli, mushrooms, strips of chicken breast, lemon and ribbons of fettuccine. "It's our number-one seller," boasts our server. "It's light. It's delicious."
And it is both of those things. But it is other things, too. The fettuccine is slightly overdone. Lemon also is overdone, tightening the pucker that the capers and artichoke have already drawn into place. Plus there was a large chicken bone tucked under the mix--hearty and a little crude as opposed to light and elegant. This seems to be the tenor of everything here, which isn't necessarily bad.
There was chicken bone in the cannelloni too, but it wasn't nearly as distracting as the sauté shrapnel. This is partly because the skeletal fragment was much smaller, but it was also because the cannelloni was far more competent. Packed with roasted eggplant, spinach and provolone cheese, the noodle tubes are firm and supple, but seasoning is shy. Still, it holds together well, is hearty and the substances mesh--even if a unifying herb or spice flavor is not readily evident. It may be hidden in the shallow pool of bright red marinara barely lapping at the base of the thick pair of tubes, but this is hard to determine as the quantity is so paltry. We ordered a ramekin of marinara reinforcement--brutally tangy stuff with a little heat breaking through to add dimension. This sauce brilliantly perks up these sleepy pasta rolls.
This marinara does wonders for the Caribe fried calamari, so named on account of the Jamaican jerk seasoning that purportedly infests the flour and corn meal coating hugging the squid rings. Like the spinach salad, the calamari is a disheveled hash of stuff. The foundation is a haphazard bed of crisp green romaine dusted prodigiously with Parmesan cheese. Over the greens, the bronzed squid cinders are piled. It's greaseless, crunchy, brittle, even a little chalky. But it is good, definitely in the top tier of Dallas fried calamari examples, which upon reflection doesn't reflect much. The marinara makes it even more delicious. But after about the seventh dip in the rapidly depleting ramekin of sauce, a question arises: Does the coating, in all of its thick, brutal presence, overwhelm the meat, requiring more dips in marinara to resuscitate it? Would a more modest battering make it even better? Is less more?
The principal works for the environs. The Bronx is a cozy collage of used brick, rattled lumber paneling, scuffed booth benches, weathered hardwood floors and often compelling pieces of art that can be had for a price. During the day, windows off the patio facing the Cedar Springs asphalt flood the room with sunlight, but the hard surfaces amp up the noise levels too. Saturday night in the bar is, well, like Saturday night in a bar.
The din doesn't diminish the rainbow trout fillet encased in buttered citrus-bacon breadcrumbs and served with new potatoes au gratin, which are essentially cut potatoes with melted mozzarella on top (good though). It has its own noise to contend with. The trout is moist and delicate, but, gad, it's hard to tease this out as the crunchy coating trounces the flavor into a cowering corner. It also makes the fish look like a badly barnacled surfboard. Again, is less more?
The most surprising menu option is the grilled New York strip with roasted garlic herbed butter. Or is it roasted garlic herbed butter with a side of steak? The butter dab is the size of a hockey puck. The steak doesn't contain enough BTUs to substantially melt it, so this chilly oversized disk glares up from the weathered beef like a cyclopean eye patch. Not that this dab doesn't have a lot to hide. The meat is dull, mealy, knotted with gristle and gray instead of medium rare. Butter doesn't help with the downslide.
But peach cobbler is delicious, with lots of fruit flavor untarnished by an overwhelming supply of cake or crust.
The Bronx has been around for nearly three decades, which in restaurant years is the rough equivalent of an eon. Its mostly competent, straightforward protocol means it will probably be around for many more decades or at least as long as that wicked witch teases twisters from a broom. 3835 Cedar Springs Road, 214-521-5821. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; open for brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; open for dinner 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$.
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