Critics rarely get to return to their favorite restaurants. Almost without exception, the only experience I have with a place is during the lead-up to a review. Once the story is filed, it's off to the next place, and then the next, leaving little time for purely pleasurable dining.
A prime example of this is my experience with Three Birds. Since favorably reviewing the restaurant in 2003, shortly after it opened, I had not returned for a single meal. The good news is that after finally making it back there, I still feel comfortable recommending the place. The bad news is that the recommendation now comes with a caveat.
Three Birds is still one of the sharpest bistros in town. Built into the crook of three adjacent buildings on the Bonne Bell campus, the restaurant utilizes those exterior brick walls as its interior walls. Peeling paint and faded wooden signs pair with contemporary lighting and exposed HVAC systems to create a sort of industrial/shabby chic environment. An elevated lounge fills the nearby dining room with a welcome shot of energy. Tables and booths are positioned so that most have stunning views of the courtyard through floor-to-ceiling windows. That magical patio, one of the sweetest in town, stays packed from Memorial Day through Labor Day, weather willing.
To say the deck was stacked in the restaurant's favor in its early days is a bit of an understatement. The opening chef was John Kolar, a gifted cook fresh off the lines of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's New York restaurant, Vong. (Kolar now operates Thyme in Medina.) Kolar's sous chef, for God's sake, was Shawn Monday, owner of the ridiculously successful Hudson hotspot Downtown 140. That talent did not go unnoticed; John Mariani selected Three Birds for inclusion in Esquire magazine's annual "20 Best New Restaurants in America."
Much of the spirit of those heady days remains. The menu is still crammed with tantalizing modern American dishes, many utilizing the season's freshest ingredients. Some items, like the fabulous Maine lobster pizza with manchego and cipollini onions ($15), have been on the menu since Day One.
What appears to have changed is the execution of those dishes. Like Kolar before her, executive chef Rachel Spieth isn't afraid to go global. She dips tender asparagus ($8) stalks into tempura batter and serves the crisp golden spears with rosemary goat cheese fondue. Unfortunately, the tempura retains oil like a sponge, and the fondue arrives at room temp. The problem with the jerk chicken pot stickers ($8) lies not in the conception — the smoky-spicy chicken set against a tropical mango coulis is a winner — but the implementation. Apparently steamed but not sautéed, the flabby dumplings lack crisp bottoms and discharge a torrent of water when pierced.
We have much better luck with a springy salad ($7) of romaine, mint, fennel and orange vinaigrette. Though even here, the advertised "shaved fennel" is sliced too thickly, leaving the raw veggie a tad tough and fibrous.
You couldn't ask for a more delicious scallop ($25) treatment. Nestled in a pool of dreamy lemon beurre blanc, the trio of deeply caramelized scallops does not last long. The seafood shares the plate with cheesy grits and delightfully woodsy fiddlehead ferns, which are simply sautéed, leaving them crisp-tender. My lamb loin chops ($24), on the other hand, arrive so undercooked that our server offers dessert upon noticing the slip-up. I had eaten my way around the blood-rare centers because the chops tasted great, especially when paired with firm spiced lentils and cucumber-mint salsa.
If the exchange with our waitress proved anything, it's that service here is as good as I recall. Bread is delivered immediately without appeal; wines are discussed with legitimate knowledge; tableware is whisked away and replaced with new; and fruity desserts are offered as conciliatory gestures.
But in a climate where diners are watching every dollar, and swapping fancy feasts with down-market dinners, it takes more than great service to woo back customers. What it requires is perfection, from start to finish. It took me six years to return to a restaurant that I loved. Think how long a customer might wait to return to a restaurant they merely like.