I am sitting at the bar, surveying the dimly lit dining room of Rathbun’s Blue Plate Kitchen in Preston Center. It is 7:30 on a Saturday evening in mid-July. Tanned men in khaki pants, golf shirts, and dock shoes drink frosty glasses of cold beer. Seated next to them, women in strapless summer dresses, their toenails painted pink, sip white wine. Waiters scoot through the crowded space carrying armloads of white plates filled with huge portions of chef-owner Kent “Big Daddy” Rathbun’s high-dollar comfort food. Everyone but me seems to be having a great evening on the town. The bartender brings me another glass of Fall Creek Chenin Blanc, from a winery outside of Austin.
This is my sixth visit to Rathbun’s Blue Plate Kitchen. I have exhausted my company’s budget for reviewing a restaurant. I’ve also been abandoned by my loyal group of volunteers who usually line up to accompany me on dining excursions. Tonight, I am alone and confused. I am eating at Blue Plate on my own nickel—make that my own dime.
In my 12 years of writing dining reviews, I have never encountered a new restaurant that elicited such polarized opinions. Half of the people I took to Blue Plate loved the food; the other half would rather go across the street to Houston’s or, in the words of one well-traveled, foul-mouthed friend, “would [expletive deleted] rather eat from a [expletive deleted] street vendor in [expletive deleted] Beirut.”
I find myself somewhere in the middle. I’ve eaten almost everything on the menu, and the word that keeps surfacing in my brain is “average.” Nothing I have tried has been special. When I think back to all the meals I’ve eaten here, not one flavor jumps forward to make me crave it.
That is not the case with Rathbun’s other restaurants. When someone brings up Abacus, I immediately remember a lovely plate of halibut. When another mentions Jasper’s, my mouth waters for barbecued ribs. Say “Blue Plate Kitchen,” and my brain freezes and my face puckers from memories of salty food.
The signs over the front door of the austere, cream-colored Austin stone façade read “Texas Grown,” “Farm Fresh,” “Seasonal Cooking,” “Comfort,” and “Cuisine.” Rathbun has managed to incorporate all of the culinary buzzwords into his new concept. Perhaps it is Blue Plate’s corporate approach to the eat-local-hug-a-farmer-pick-your-own movement that irks me. Rathbun is capitalizing on the comfort food trend, and the food is served with a hefty side of slick celebrity marketing. Yes, the menu features Paula’s cheese, Dr Pepper barbecue sauce, Texas Gulf shrimp, greens from Tassione Farms, and Texas wines (Fall Creek and Becker) and beer (Rahr in Fort Worth). But the overall pitch—Texas grown—is misleading. Only some of the food is Texas grown, and the two Texas wineries on the list are overwhelmed by imports. He defends the slogan by saying he is trying to use as many Texas products as possible. Yes, the summer menu is full of Texas, because it’s peak growing season. But come December, Rathbun, like most other guys running high-volume restaurants, will be hard-pressed to support his claim. Why not just be Texas Proud?
Dallas is proud of Big Daddy. He’s our most visible chef right now. He appears on national TV, sits on national food councils, participates in charities, and oversees a burgeoning company that includes Abacus, Jasper’s (Plano, Woodlands, Austin, San Antonio), Shinsei, and Blue Plate. He is a tireless promoter. You can follow his every move on Facebook and Twitter (chef911): “Heading to Baltimore to judge the National Pork Finals.” “At the horse track with the chefs.” “Up at Jasper’s Plano. Rockin’.”
Perhaps he should stop in the kitchen at Blue Plate, check the sodium content of the food, and tweet, “Took the salt away from the line cooks!” Even the signature Young’s Farm Butter Wedge salad—a gorgeous half-head of fresh lettuce with a scoop of cottage cheese handmade by Paula Lambert especially for Blue Plate—is buried under ounces of salty Green Goddess dressing. The pickled red onions and bacon on top further complicate the salad.
My three tasters who loved Blue Plate share an obsession with bacon—which might explain why they weren’t as bothered by all the salt. The curly spinach and bacon salad—mounds of spinach with big, thick chunks of bacon—is tossed in a tart, slightly creamy sherry vinaigrette. They said the fried oysters on top were “great,” but the bacon was “awesome.” Smoked rock shrimp biscuits and gravy is a new twist on shrimp and grits. My Blue Plate lovers thought the gravy would make it too heavy but found it “surprisingly light and with just the right kick from the tasso ham.” These bacophiles usually don’t touch green vegetables, but the Brussels sprouts were, in their opinion, “really good and crunchy.” The sprouts are also braised with bacon fat.
We all loved the TLBT: turkey, lettuce, bacon, and tomato. The turkey was fresh and moist, and the bread was coated with a subtly sweet apricot-scented mayonnaise. Texan? Well, the sandwich was tall.
My other group, the rather-go-to-Houston’s crowd, was not impressed with the mopped rotisserie chicken. “Throw this on the grill,” said one after pulling up the flabby skin on the bird. The meat was so soft and juicy, you could slice it with a fork. But other than (thankfully) a little salt and pepper, only a couple tablespoons of sauce sat in a puddle on top.
“This is not meatloaf. This is a slice of pie from the Cheesecake Factory in disguise,” quipped another disgruntled diner, referring to the Blue Plate Meatblock, a huge 8-inch-tall triangular wedge of meat surrounded by brown pan gravy. The meat was dense and flecked with something green (parsley?). We could not distinguish any flavor other than—you guessed it—salt.
The only dish that everyone hated was the disastrous roasted pork loin. I ordered it twice, and both times the dish appeared the same: thin slices of dry pork fanned over a fistful of steamed cauliflower rolled in an ancho chile cream sauce. Both the pork and cauliflower were a dull orange. Could this be Rathbun’s subtle tribute to dirt in East Texas?
Even more disappointing than the food was the décor and the service, which is surprising given that Abacus might have the best service in town. At Blue Plate, the servers were forgetful; once they took our orders, service lagged; and they mixed up our dishes. Rathbun has always been big on ambience, and Abacus and Jasper’s both offer spectacular surroundings. Blue Plate moved into the space vacated by Carrabba’s and then Zea WoodFire Grill, and very little was done to transform the place into a Rathbun-quality environment. Nothing about the décor screams Texas. There are no mounted deer heads, bales of hay, or barbed-wire railings. The floors are dark green terrazzo, and the ceiling is black. Wooden round and square tables are spread around rooms divided by open shelving units filled with random settings of Le Creuset saucepans, canning jars, and candles. Framed photographs of oranges, honey, grapes, and butter melting on corn hang on light mustard-colored walls. These pictures could have been taken in California or Florida. Or France.
So why is this dining room full tonight? Maybe this is a place where folks willing to spend $16 to $28 for an entree can feel good about supporting their local farmers. Hey, bartender, can I have another glass of Fall Creek Chenin Blanc? At least it’s from Texas.
Get contact information for Rathbun’s Blue Plate Kitchen.