IF THE OBSERVATORY is using the heavens to navigate, it must be following a wandering star. The new eatery is adrift between the currents of bar and restaurant, with a menu that is part surf, part turf, and desperate for a harbor.
Located in the Montavilla neighborhood, the Observatory is certainly charming. It works best as a neighborhood hangout—or a place for friends who've taken advantage of low home prices beyond 82nd to meet with those who've opted to keep paying rent downtown. A line of church pews acts as a banquette along one wall and large square tables occupy most of the floor space alongside comfortable and tasteful chairs. The Medusa-esque chandelier hanging above the enormous bar acts as a whimsical constellation that tempers the weight of the heavy furnishings. The eclectic selection of art and knickknacks suggests a Victorian-era club for dilettante English explorers who've stayed close to home.
A good portion of the menu is devoted to cocktails—generally new takes on old classics. The spiced Manhattan is heavy with allspice-infused bourbon, which I enjoyed, despite my server's efforts to convince me otherwise. However, she would have been right concerning my feelings for the bland lavender gin lemon drop, which fell flat.
The Observatory's kitchen is currently keen on fish, but produces mixed results. A house-smoked whitefish spread is quite good, just fishy enough, and when accompanied by rye crackers, horseradish, and a giardiniera-like mélange of house-pickled veggies, the spread makes a fine snack.
Another nice starter is the lightly breaded calamari with lemon aioli and an all-purpose tomato puree. The calamari rings and blossoming tentacles are just this side of tender and remain both light and filling.
Unfortunately, the smoked salmon salad suffers from over-dressed tender greens, creating the effect of a mound of wet grass. The salmon studded throughout was flavorful, but would have worked better if not buried in sodden flora.
As for main dishes, the snapper came to me overcooked and nearly covered with a large dollop of lemon aioli (the same served with the calamari) as if trying to hide the fish. More satisfying were the warm greens and buttery fried potato cake that share the plate.
There is good to be found among the Observatory's entrées. The chicken-fried chicken, for instance, is analogous to tasty schnitzel: tender and juicy after being flattened and dredged in panko before frying. It works very well with the accompanying mashed potatoes, crisped savory Brussels sprouts, and tangy gravy.
The special buffalo burger also hit the spot on a recent evening. The meat was moist and yielding, topped with blue cheese and grilled onions, and slipped into an airy bun. It was flavorful and easy to eat, but the fries that accompanied were a letdown.
All in all, it feels as if the Observatory's kitchen would be well served by finding a safe port and making more of a stand. It would be nice to see the surf 'n' turf aesthetic specifically embraced and the cuisine executed with more gusto. Based on several menu items, it's clear they have the ability—it's just a question of finding the right star to steer by.