It’s with a sinking feeling of “What do they know that I don’t?” that one walks into an empty restaurant. Granted, we arrived at West Avenue Kitchen on one of those recent really rainy nights — streets awash, that sort of thing. But people still have to eat. We had our choice of any seat in the house, but I’d prefer a little more sporting competition. So would the chef, I’m sure.
Rick Frame should be used to competition. His résumé proudly sports a Blue Star Arts & Eats award, and, having served as sous-chef under both Bruce Auden at Biga and Mark Bliss at Silo, he has also worked in classy settings. Frame’s Blue Star association might have put him in touch with artists such as Juan Miguel Ramos, but Ramos’s striking Asia-meets-the-barrio banners are the one spark of life in an otherwise uninspired environment. Yet lack (or excess) of décor never has deterred local diners, so what’s the problem? It’s not the food. And it may be the food.
West Avenue’s menu looks disorganized and feels like it’s trotting out everything the chef knows how to do — though he surely knows even more. Breakfast-style offerings, including a modern migas plate with roasted peppers, spinach, lentils, and goat cheese, are prominently featured at lunch — perhaps in anticipation of earlier opening hours. There are multiple pastas. The several salad selections range from a romaine “wedge” to a sesame-chicken number with glass noodles and a citrus-soy dressing. Sandwiches run the gamut from polite chicken salad with mango to a messy-macho “Cuban” Angus burger. Is there a focus here?
Lunch, also under-populated, was my first foray into this “Rick Frame Venture,” and the Cuban burger just had to be tried. Delaying potential pleasure, I began with a tomato-chipotle soup and found it didn’t put off gratification at all: it was full-flavored, appealingly textured, and discreetly chile-laced. I also admit to liking the odd but appealing (and complimentary) chip dip with a lentil and tomato base. Lentils are a Frame favorite, it appears.
The burger, made “Cuban” with brown-sugar ham, baby Swiss, and pickle, was juicy and jam-packed with flavor — and so big I was able to further defer delight by taking half home. An accompanying orzo salad with lentils, cucumber, tomato, and greens was tart but a refreshing contrast. So it’s not the food — at least not at lunch.
The evening menu is also somewhat chaotic, but at least there are fewer choices. While deciding, we were brought another lentil-based freebie, this one a kind of hummus with tahini and garlic. Also very good.
The daily wines by the glass didn’t appeal to us, so we settled on a gently priced Perrin Côtes du Rhone Reserve ($24) and awaited the arrival of an appetizer plate that sort of sums up the operation: it had everything from Spanish chorizo to dry-cured pork, manchego cheese, olives, roasted garlic, caramelized onions … and lightly poached strawberries with a balsamic glaze. Oh, and toast points. There’s plenty for two, and we liked it all — especially the contrast between the cool, sweet-tart strawberries and the warm chorizo.
A subsequent salad turned out to be something of a treasure hunt. An assortment of mixed greens was piled atop all the other ingredients (chunks of blue cheese, slices of green apple, a handful of walnuts), and it was up to us to try to get representative bites. Fine when we did; frustrating when we didn’t.
Frame restrains himself and uses lentils only once in the entrée section — with a smoked-salmon plate accompanied by a lentil-and-spinach sauté and parmesan polenta. The polenta is another recurring motif and it played a part in a plate of pan-seared tuna loin with pencil-thin green beans and a tomato-and-goat-cheese salad. The assertively peppered tuna was desirably rare, its only problem being a texture that didn’t speak of sushi-grade (nor did the $20 price, for that matter).
The crunchy haricots were seriously seasoned, too, the flavor-packed polenta demanded its own starring role … and the tomato-goat cheese garnish was saved from diva-dom only by its diminutive size. The palate and plate both pleaded for a little relief — an unusual problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.
An exuberance of tastes on a too-small plate also characterized our vegetarian entrée, eggplant “stuffed” with ricotta and spinach. A better menu description would have helped here. We had expected a real stuffing, cooked together with the eggplant, but what arrived was more like a sandwich with an extremely creamy center that needed both a stiffer texture and more spinach. Despite a very good tomato-basil sauce, this one bombed, leaving the field to a very good manchego bread salad accompaniment.
Lack of trying wasn’t a problem with our one house-made dessert, a croissant version of French toast served with ice cream and dulce de leche. But the texture was chewy and a whiff of roasted marshmallow (something smelled like campfire delight, in any case) didn’t pull the plate together.
So here’s the assessment: edit — everything from the number of dishes to the flavors on each plate; then get bigger plates to give the remaining tastes some breathing room. There are many things to like here — including the lentils, which happen to be a personal favorite. And there’s no reason for an empty restaurant — even on a dark and stormy night.
WEST AVE KITCHEN, 21
13444 West Ave.
This “Rick Frame Venture” over-delivers flavorful, Mediterranean-influenced fare.
The Cuban burger loaded with ham and baby Swiss
11am-2:30pm Mon-Fri; 5:30-10pm Wed-Sat