Contender, Redefined 

When good food doesn't equal fine dining.

click to enlarge food23_lede_hidden_treasure_148.jpg

I don't know much about boxing. What I do know is, you want to fight in your weight class. I know those classes are clearly, quantifiably defined. And I know that no featherweight would risk his career — much less his life — by taking on a heavyweight.

Unfortunately, the same is not true in the restaurant industry. Though it also has classes — fast casual, family dining, fine dining, etc. — these terms are often misused. It seems almost common for restaurateurs to decide that the key to success is slapping the label "fine dining" on their "OK dining" eatery. This is not a good idea.

The elements that combine to create fine dining cannot always be quantified, but they certainly include impeccable service; an elegant atmosphere; tasteful dishes, linens and cutlery; and delicious food created and attractively plated by a highly skilled chef.

It's no wonder that restaurant owners long to offer fine dining — the pinnacle of the industry — but I fail to understand why so many owners pretend to offer fine dining. Not only does this false promise woo customers with an unachievable set of expectations, it's also entirely unnecessary given that most of us eat at non-fine-dining establishments most of the time.

Despite what it touts on its promotional material, Jackson Ward's new eatery — Hidden Treasure — is not fine dining. To judge Hidden Treasure in that category would be painful. But once it's shifted into its true weight class, it has serious potential.

What Hidden Treasure does best at dinner are the entrées that would be more at home served atop newspaper-covered tables. The crab cakes are good, if standard, and are adorned with honey-mustard and cocktail sauces that arrive in plastic ramekins (not so "fine"). The steamed and barbecued shrimp are equally straightforward, but the fried catfish and the shrimp, scallops and trout that are featured in the deep-fried seafood basket are transcendent in their simplicity.

Actually, everything that visited the fryer was better for the trip, including the fried tomatoes, which came with a simple side of buttermilk ranch.

The she-crab bisque is also a winner: just salty enough without parching, and chock-full of crab. The complementary dinner rolls are homemade, hot out of the oven and dripping with butter, Parmesan and herbs. This pairing alone might be worth the trip.

Where things started to go wrong was with the roasted pear and pecan salad, with pears that were not roasted but — you guessed it — fried. That's forgivable, but the raspberry vinaigrette that dressed the plate was sweet enough to obliterate the nice medley of pear, pecan and blue cheese.

And, unforgivably, the London broil turned out to be a brutally hacked and mercilessly overcooked flank that arrived in a bath of "brown sauce" that was aptly named.

I rarely meet a garnish worth a mention in print, but here's the exception. Garnishing is great if it adds to the experience of eating. There are two basic views on the subject, broken down roughly into "nothing inedible" versus "anything goes if it looks good." Hidden Treasure's kitchen staff seems to flout both camps when it haphazardly dusts plates with such potent flavors as cracked black pepper and Old Bay seasoning. The effect? Across-the-board over-seasoning and at least one sneezing fit.

But there were no garnishes at lunch, and lunch puts the "treasure" in the restaurant's name. The homemade potato salad is roll-your-eyes good. The roast beef sandwich is perfectly seasoned, the meat roasted in-house and sliced while still juicy. It's served on a fresh-baked sub roll and paired with a sharp horseradish aioli for an unfathomable $5.95. Given that the crab bisque and golden-fried goodness from the dinner menu are served at lunch, it's no wonder that far more tables were filled Wednesday at noon than on a Saturday night.

But there aren't many tables to fill. The dining room is cozy and attractive, with a healthy dose of quirky, including mismatched china and mercurial service. I, for one, am fine with quirky in a personality-rich neighborhood restaurant, which is what Hidden Treasure seems destined to be. Of course, it won't be the only such spot in that area. In fact, calling itself "fine dining" may have been a calculated attempt to distinguish Hidden Treasure from Croaker's Spot. But despite some menu overlap, there's plenty of room for great comfort food in this city, and with its unique setting, Hidden Treasure stands out.

Here's hoping Hidden Treasure's owners don't waste any more time pretending to be in a heavier weight class than they can live up to. Jackson Ward has a new contender in casual dining, especially if its owners play up their restaurant's not-so-hidden strengths. S

Hidden Treasure Restaurant ($-$$)
219 E. Clay St.
225-9048
Lunch: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m.;
Friday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Brunch: Sunday, noon-5 p.m.

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