When Nectaly Mendoza opened Herbs & Rye late last year — on a forlorn stretch of west Sahara near Valley View — I was a bit put off by its name, which tells you nothing; my hopes took another small plunge when I first entered the place, redone with an on-the-cheap speakeasy look.
But confidence was restored when Mendoza and his bartenders poured us an array of old-fashioned cocktails, done with a purist's hand and top-of-the-line ingredients (fresh-squeezed juices, house-made garnishes, etc.).
Mendoza is a passionate fellow who knows his way around a liquor bottle. As the former beverage director for the Light Group, his take on lip-smacking, well-constructed drinks are a libation-lover's dream come true — especially if your tastes run to such classic concoctions as a Pegu Club or a perfect Manhattan, milk punch or gimlet.
Perhaps the bar is set so high here that the food couldn't hope to measure up. The sad fact is it doesn't even try. After two dinners and a number of bites at the bar, all I can say: Keep drinking if you want to enjoy yourself.
The first thing you'll notice is how cheap the bread is. Light, white and slightly toasted, it's your first sign the food is not chosen with the same care as the booze. Another misstep: honey-sweetened butter — something that only makes sense in a breakfast joint.
Then comes the calamari fritti, and you notice that the hot banana peppers and crispy prosciutto are barely there. The staff then steers you to the sausage bombes — a great idea until a thick, fried-wonton wrapper appears, stuffed with a fennel-flecked paste of peppery mush that is "sausage" in name only.
Next comes tomato "caprese," a salad of cherry tomatoes of various colors atop a few large basil leaves, onto which sliced mozzarella balls have been sprinkled. Nothing is really wrong with it, but it's nothing even a bad cook couldn't make at home for a lot less than its $11 tariff.
Everyone's doing pizzas (or flatbreads as they're called here), but no one is doing them with such a surfeit of ingredients. The "Alsatian" is the simplest of the bunch, but still manages to insult the spirit of the real thing by shaving potato "coins" onto bread with sliced onions, bacon bits and rosemary goat-cheese crema. It stands (or rather stoops) as a classic example of why less is more when it comes to the classics.
Things improve not a bit when you opt for the cappicola (an unholy, heavy mess of red cabbage, deep-fried shrimp bits and swirls of heavy mayonnaise that this kitchen is far too fond of), or the Mediterranean (goat cheese, artichoke hearts, tomato, kalamata olives and spinach puree). Whew!
The linguine with clams is serviceable enough, but not as clammy (or in the same league) as either Ferraro's or Battista's version. Gnocchi alla Bolognese are done with a heavy hand, in a heavy meat sauce, and aren't something you'd find in Bologna. That same meat sauce turns up in the huge portion of lasagna con funghi that is, by far, your safest bet among the pastas. Of the entrees, the pollo Arrosto — a boneless breast and thigh — is glazed with some kind of tepid orange sauce and comes on a plate loaded with boiled, small potatoes.
I'm hardly the only one who's noticed the mediocrity of this kitchen. People are staying away in droves, as they say, and at our last meal (this past Saturday night), we were one of only two occupied tables at 8 p.m. Matters weren't helped by a lounge act singing old show tunes in the dining room. On the plus side, the singer's rendition of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" was pretty darn good.
John Curtas is the food critic for KNPR 88.9-FM and holds court online at eatinglv.com.