WHEN GERONIMOZ CLOSED its doors, I hoped that someone would seize upon the fact that despite the proliferation of restaurants near the university, not one offers up anything more than sandwiches or tired bar food.
When the word got out that the Flores family (known for El Charro) would be opening a venue, hope seemed to be on the horizon. And the remodeling clearly indicated that the family was making an investment to ensure the venue's success. A soothing blue from the outside, Bliss has that trendy, contemporary look that radiates hipness. Slick on the outside, blue on the inside, the overall décor strives to create a polished, modern look. From the silver and chrome tables and chairs to the large words on the wall spelling out the restaurant's charter values ("enjoy," "bliss," "simplify," "breathe"), the room exudes a certain militant teen attitude.
Despite these efforts, or maybe because of them, there is a facile and commercial quality to the room. Perhaps this comes from the row of eight TVs marching up over the bar, each tuned to the same channel, each projecting a faint wash of the Bliss logo.
A menu can tell you a good many things before the food even arrives at the table. So to be fair, we were forewarned. From the very first offering, "Those Damn Breadsticks," which are served "Fried or Baked, just like Keith Richards," we should have known trouble was coming. By the time we got to "Chicks on Sticks," which the menu informed us are "on easy to handle skewers," I knew we were rapidly sinking into a world of hurt.
We settled on "The 4 Food Groups" ($6.95), mainly because the menu description wasn't overtly offensive. But then the dish arrived: a platter of cold cuts and vegetables, with our choice of dipping sauces. We requested pesto and queso chipotle, but when they arrived we were hard-pressed to discern which was which. The pesto, traditionally made with olive oil, was here whipped with butter and (the server believed) cream cheese. This bastard sibling was no relation to any kind of pesto we've ever sampled, and we promptly requested that it be replaced with barbecue sauce. Although this didn't really sit well with cucumbers and tomatoes, it was okay with the raw red onion. Nothing could mask the bruised and slimy lettuce.
The queso chipotle was an abomination. Starting with canned nacho cheese, someone sprinkled in some chile powder, turning the sauce an ungodly reddish color but unfortunately not masking the canned-cheese flavor. Somehow, it didn't matter that we were eating top-quality Boar's Head meats. Really, we didn't want to eat it at all.
However, we'd already ordered sandwiches. Against better judgment I ordered the "Sub of Sam (aka The Samwich)" ($7.25), billed as Boar's Head chicken breast, salami and pepperoni with a touch of lasagna, tomatoes, peppers and provolone, baked and brushed with olive oil and parmesan. This was served with a choice of mashed potatoes or "MAC and Cheese." When the sandwich did arrive, it was scorched on the outside and cold on the inside. The breast of chicken was refrigerated, and why someone would want to wedge lasagna into this already mismatched heap of ingredients is unclear. In short, it was inedible. The side of "MAC and Cheese" was boiled rotelli with a spoonful of the aforementioned queso chipotle.
Next in line was the "Plymouth Rock" ($6.95), boasting thinly sliced Boar's Head oven-roasted turkey, stuffing and cranberry spread, baked in a cheddar cornbread and topped with mushroom gravy. The sandwich was large and the slices of cornbread were not only unwieldy but also raw in the center. The turkey was a generous portion, but there was no stuffing. The cranberry sauce and the gravy were canned. The best part of this dish was the side of fries, which were incongruous with the dish, but at least they had been cooked correctly.
We waited some time for the calzone to arrive at the table, and when it did it had been scorched black on the bottom. We'd ordered the "Mr. Biggs" ($7.95), a calzone stuffed with spinach, artichoke, mushrooms, peppers, ricotta and mozzarella cheese with marinara. Although the filling might have been an interesting one, the proportions were wrong, so what we were served was mostly bitter spinach, canned artichoke and lumps of semi-melted cheese. This dish, like the others, was sampled and set aside.
We just couldn't believe that a new restaurant that represented a substantial investment could be so bad, so we bravely decided to visit the venue another time.
This time, blessedly, our dining experience improved. Although the dining room was still understandably empty, this time the food was cooked correctly, even if the combinations of ingredients verged on the bizarre.
Call us gluttons for punishment, but we had to try the Monte Cristo, billed on the menu as "Boar's Head ham and turkey, Swiss cheese, grilled in an egg batter, served with our caramel and strawberry dipping sauces ... Wow!" ($6.95). While familiar with the Monte Cristo, we had to see why the kitchen felt compelled to serve this sandwich with caramel or strawberry sauce, which fulfills an aesthetic one can only describe as deranged. When the sandwich arrived, we all held our breath. Mercifully, on this night the staff in the kitchen handled the ingredients with care and skill; the sandwich was moist and griddled correctly. The cheese was melted and the turkey was warm and tender. Neither caramel nor strawberry sauces appeared; instead we received ramekins of maple and raspberry syrup. We dutifully tasted both the syrups and decided that really there is nothing that can be done about any of the "dipping sauces" at Bliss other than to avoid them.
"Nancy's Big Bowl" ($6.95) promised chicken breast, fresh grapes, celery and toasted almonds mixed in a light mayonnaise, with red onions, tomato wedges and cucumbers. The salad arrived looking sporty and this time the lettuce was crisp and rinsed. A large scoop of chicken salad nested in the center of the plate. We couldn't find any almonds or grapes, but the rest of the ingredients were fresh.
"Art's Black Bean Soup" ($4.95) proved to be a nice, simple dish. The soup was warm, a touch spicy, and someone took the time to pipe in the word "BLISS" on the top of the soup in a cilantro crema. The accompanying tortilla had been exhausted by heat and left to turn brittle under the heat lamps, but the breadsticks that came with the salad did the trick. This was easily the best dish that we sampled. Perhaps the kitchen should take note that simplest dishes can sometimes be the best.
Overall, the biggest difference that we noticed in the food on this occasion was that someone in the kitchen was trained to handle the ingredients. But even a trained hand couldn't save the menu from itself.
Dessert really wasn't an option. Four were listed, and none of them seemed like wise choices as they all featured white bread or cheese. At our server's hesitant suggestion, we tried the Chocolate Fix, described on the menu as "Dark and white chocolate chips melted together and topped with powdered sugar, caramelized walnuts and whip cream." What we were served was two pieces of white bread, grilled with melted chocolate chips in the center, served with two scoops of vanilla ice cream and squirted with cherry syrup. At $4.95 this dish speaks for itself. What can one possibly say in the face of such a craven concoction?
I suppose it was wise to open this venue near the university, as there is something vaguely reminiscent in most of the menu items, as if they were conceived by a drunken frat boy pawing through the refrigerator. Maybe intoxicated students will feel right at home, or maybe the inebriated won't notice that clearly there is no culinary training on behalf of the management or staff. There isn't any sense of what goes together to make a palatable dish. Melted chocolate on white bread should not be called a dessert. Monte Cristo sandwiches should not be served with caramel or strawberry dipping sauce. Lasagna doesn't belong on a sandwich squashed between chicken breast and tomato, certainly not on a sandwich served cold on the inside and scorched on the outside. These are things that don't go together. Ever.
Rumor has it that a new menu is coming. Although we were told that it was to be in place as of August 1, at this writing it still has not been put into place. Apparently, some entrées will be added and a few items that "don't seem to sell" will be removed. It is a relief that someone in the restaurant realizes that all is not blissful on the dining front. With over 44 offerings plus four "desserts," this menu sprawls in so many unrealized directions that one can only pray for a judicious pruning. With some alterations, kitchen-staff training, and more experience and care with menu development, Bliss could prove to be a more satisfying encounter. Probably not blissful, but possibly palatable.
In this case, ignorance may be prevalent, but it is definitely not bliss.
Bliss. 800 E. University Blvd., Suite 104. 623-1711. Serving daily from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. V, MC, Amex, Disc. No checks. Menu items: $2.95-$7.95.