ADDISON -- Ida Claire may be a popular Southern belle -- but she has issues.
We're talking about the hotter-than-hot new Southern restaurant on Belt Line. Even the name is impossibly cute. Say it: I deh-clare. Get it?
Walk in, past the vintage Airstream trailer outside on the patio (outfitted with dining tables), through the entryway decorated with overlapping open books on the wall. Bird cages hang from the dining room ceiling; plates of all colors and sizes are displayed over the open kitchen.
The busy dining room has tables high and low, communal and private, booths and banquettes -- you can even take seat at a long counter facing the kitchen and watch the chefs as you dine.
Friends who have stopped in keep asking me if it's part of a chain; it certainly has that feel. It isn't. It's a one-off owned by Fork It Over Restaurants, the group that brought us Whiskey Cake in Plano, the Ranch at Las Colinas and Twin Peaks. The vibe is like Whiskey Cake on a sugar high.
From the moment you check in with the valet -- who demands your cellphone number so you can later retrieve your car -- the experience has a distinct corporate aftertaste. The hostess wants your cell number, too. (Concerned about your privacy? Executive chef John Franke says, via email, "We do NOT market using this information and we do NOT share the information whatsoever.")
The place tends to be packed, even on a Tuesday night.The wait for a table without a reservation can be long, and the young kids charged with moving people through at the hostess stand seem in over their heads. Busy bartenders scramble to keep up at the crowded bar.
What to drink? There's a long list of fun cocktails, including a whole page of juleps; classic mint is the best I tasted, though it seemed like mostly crushed ice. One night when a text message told us our table was ready, I sent my girlfriend to claim it while I settled the bar bill -- or tried to; it took an absurdly long time to catch a bartender's eye. Southern hospitality? Hmmm ...
I wish I could say that the food, which Ida Claire's website bills as "South of Ordinary," was worth the wait, but with a few exceptions, it was far from it.
Louisiana flavors reign, as in pecan-wood-roasted oysters that came loaded up with chopped kale, bacon, butter and breadcrumbs -- not bad. A cup of gently spicy gumbo garnished with a crisply fried oyster cradled some nice little shrimp and bits of andouille sausage. Golden-brown crawfish fritters came with a smoked mustard rémoulade. If the place were as laid-back as its website suggests ("an intriguing, southern-inspired destination for relaxing suppers, slow weekend brunching or a meeting hub for business lunches and happy hour") I'd sit at the bar, sip one of the more than two dozen beers on draft and nibble those fritters any old time.
There's a trio of "knife and fork" biscuit sandwiches, including one jammed with fried chicken, spinach, roasted tomato and bacon gravy and topped with a sunny-side- up egg; fine, but nothing special. Like many of the dishes, the idea may have been worthy, but it all seemed carelessly slopped together.
That was the case for a couple of snazzy- sounding salads, including a sodden one featuring cast-iron okra, Brussels sprouts, greens and benne brittle and too much tahini dressing.
The appetizer that sounded most south of ordinary -- sweet-potato chip duck confit -- failed to come together. Basically it was a bowl of sweet-potato chips strewn with shreds of duck confit and bits of goat cheese and topped with a sunny-side-up duck egg circled with duck-fat gravy. The chips, which didn't particularly meld with the other ingredients, quickly became monotonous, and we found ourselves fishing around the plate for bits of the duck.
More serious problems came with the main courses, and it was hard to find much that sounded interesting or appealing among the eight choices.
I nearly missed the burger, which my friend ordered only because they were out of the plate he wanted (and I was eager to taste): a tea-braised pork shank with whipped celery root mash, Brussels sprouts, tomato, lardons and spiced tea gravy. Topped with pimento cheese, along with shredded lettuce, tomato, bread and butter pickles and black pepper aioli on a sweet- potato bun, that burger sounded odd. But it was a happy surprise, well-proportioned and cooked medium-rare as requested -- and the only main course I'd recommend.
Otherwise, there are clunky crawfish ravioli swimming in a lot of heavy tomato- butter sauce; blackened sea trout that came to the table nearly raw inside on more than one occasion; and a sliced Wagyu sirloin clobbered by a heavy-handed, salty gravy (this was the shallot and ginger pan jus promised on the menu?) That came with anoverdressed, clunky okra-and-wild- mushroom salad. Half a chicken grilled over pecan wood evaded its "bird of paradise" menu moniker; I couldn't find the dark meat that was no doubt in there somewhere, and the chicken was set over a sauté of kale, wild mushrooms, cipollinis and creamer peas overwhelmed by raw garlic.
Shrimp and grits were better, though hit-you-over-the-head rich.
If you're thinking of venturing into Ida Claire anyway, and ordering something relatively simple and straightforward, like a muffuletta sandwich (how can it miss?), hear this: It was the foulest thing I've tasted in some years, eliciting from my dining companions a string of invective that can't be printed in a family newspaper. Had the olives in the relish gone off? Who knows, but I'm not keen to try it again.
Ida Claire's two desserts, both outsized wedges of layer cake, are sweet, crude and heavy-handed as much of the rest. If try one you must, I'd go with the Bartender's Cake, layers of butter cake with spiced pecans and brown sugar-cream cheese frosting. The other, Ida's Vice Cake, involves stout cake brushed with tobacco simple syrup, layered with coffee buttercream and cloaked in chocolate ganache. Its garnish -- a big piece of candied bacon lodged in its side -- was so tough it nearly broke my tooth.
A third cake has been wisely redacted from the menu.
Ida Claire (1 star)
Price: $$-$$$ (lunch and dinner starters and salads $6 to $13; lunch biscuits, sandwiches and main courses $9 to $18; dinner biscuits and sandwiches $10 to $13; dinner main courses $14 to $26; brunch starters $5 to $13; brunch biscuits, sandwiches and plates $10 to $26; desserts $7)
Service: The sense of hospitality at the door and the bar aren't terribly keen; at the tables, the young servers are warm and eager to please, though sometimes lacking in experience or training.
Ambience: A large, energetic dining room that plays up Southern eclectic to the max, with a massive bar, a long counter facing an open kitchen and a patio that would be inviting if the blaring music (which competes with music coming from the bar) weren't so nerve-jangling
Noise level: Depends on where you're sitting. At a table outside, loud music made conversation impossible. The booths and banquettes at the periphery of the dining room are probably least noisy.
Location: 5001 Belt Line Road, Addison; 214-377-8227; ida-claire.com
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday 11a.m. to 10 p.m.; brunch Saturday-Sunday 11p.m. to 4 p.m., midnight brunch Friday- Saturday 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.; bar open daily 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Credit cards: AE, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, with a long list of craft cocktails and more than two dozen beers on tap. The vintageless global wine list, with 20 selections offered by the glass and the bottle, offers little of real interest. Prices range from $8 to $13 for a glass, $30 to $54 for a bottle.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor