GOOD SERVICE goes a long way. Attentive waitresses. Friendly bartenders. Smiles. Jokes. It's not enough to change my mind about a sub-par restaurant, but it's enough that I'll wrestle for something nice to say. So: If you really need something to eat while you're doing laundry next door, but Pambiche and Dove Vivi are full, and it's hailing hard enough that you physically can't make it a couple blocks to the half dozen excellent dining options down 28th Avenue, I can't recommend Clementine Bistro and Bar strongly enough.
"At Clementine," the menu tells me, "we do not believe in prefabricated, overly processed food. Because of this belief it might take a couple of extra minutes to get your meal, but it will be well worth it." During each of my visits, the opposite was true. Our meals came out fairly quickly (and I mean it, the servers were wonderful), but if I were given four words to describe what was on my plate, I just might choose "prefabricated and overly processed."
It's billed as "Southern comfort food," so it's not like I wasn't forewarned. But all you have to do is walk down to Screen Door to see how something can be fried and slathered and still taste fresh. "Authenticity" isn't an excuse.
The most egregious dish I tried was the catfish ($10)—a staple, nay, a requirement for any place that purports to deal in Southern comforts. I prefer it blackened, but alas, that wasn't an option. The thin strip of fish was breaded with something that felt like gravel, and cooked about twice as long as it needed to be. Whatever flavor was there had been left in the pan. A disappointment, for sure, but I'm always just as excited about Southern side dishes as I am the entrée. Sadly, excitement wasn't merited. The mashed potatoes were topped with gravy that, if not a powder in origin, did a remarkable job imitating one. Similarly, I don't think the vegetables were frozen—the cuts and shapes threw me, anyway—but someone figured out how to replicate that same texture and blandness in fresh vegetables. Worst, maybe, were the collard greens. They were overcooked to a puréed consistency—it was like eating baby food cooked in pork fat (which, coincidentally, is my new prediction for haute 2011 dining trends). The "world's greatest" hushpuppies fell far short of their superlative.
Breakfast didn't fare much better, with the caveat that until noon Bloody Marys and mimosas are only $3 (The Bloody Mary wasn't bad—sufficiently spicy, garnished with pickled asparagus, and pretty damn drinkable for the price). I wanted to give both the sweet and savory a shot, so I ordered French toast with bacon and eggs ($7). They were satisfying in a truck-stop diner sort of way—put enough butter and syrup on top, wash it down with serviceable, generic coffee, and hit the road. That model works fine on the side of the highway, but if you're located on one of the most competitive strips of restaurants in a food-centric city, and advertising yourself as something other than a greasy spoon, you've got to do more. My date had a veggie scramble ($7, with cheese) that seemed to feature the same quality of vegetables I sampled at dinner. It was utterly bland, possibly unsalted.
The space itself is a bit confounding. Not rundown or untidy, just not very well conceived. It serves to reaffirm my belief that trying to be all things to all people makes you appealing to no one (or to me, anyway). The front room is a mix of dining tables and couches—it feels more like a church-run coffee shop than an actual restaurant or bar. The second room looks similar, except with a flat-screen TV, a makeshift stage (apparently there's an open-mic night on Thursdays), and a play area for children. None of those features are bad in and of themselves (depending on how you feel about children), but it seems thrown together and inorganic. As a business model, Clementine seems to be more about accommodating whoever can't get a table at Bakery Bar than creating a desire in customers to come back.
Maybe I'm wrong and there is room in the neighborhood's busy dining scene for a place like Clementine. Prices are low; happy hour is long (2-6pm); Bakery Bar does get crowded on weekends. But if restaurants thrive on word of mouth, on people telling their friends "you've got to try this," I can't imagine that low costs and Southern hospitality will cut it.