THE BROTHERS McMENAMIN, for the latest notch in their belt, have forgone their usual transformation of a historic building into a museum of Grateful Dead ephemera and tater tots. This time, they've taken a shot at turning a former bathhouse into an upscale restaurant. Gone are Captain Neon and his side of greasy fries (you can find his whole crew, if you're looking, next door at Ringlers Annex). Instead, look for phrases like "seared fingerlings and harissa aioli" and "curried cauliflower gratin."
When plans started coming together for the Zeus Café, the ground-floor restaurant at the McMenamins' new Crystal Hotel, I was surprised at the caliber of people they were pulling in. Though I wasn't crazy about his former home, Pinot American Brasserie, I heard good chatter about Chef Paul Arnold's chops. The managers could list El Gaucho and Wildwood on their respective CVs. And poaching David Shenaut from Beaker & Flask, arguably the best cocktail bar in town, was a feather in the McMenami hat. It appeared that McMenamins was going for quality instead of quantity.
Some of it has worked out. Unlike roughly every meal I've eaten at Rams Head, or Kennedy School, or any other of their 50-some-odd restaurants, the staff seem to care. I've been seated quickly; I haven't had to wander out back to convince the server to print my check; I haven't been made to feel like an asshole for ordering a second beer. The staff at the Zeus Café was friendly and attentive. And my drinks—though probably not as good as they could have been, if not for the house whiskey and gin—have been expertly balanced and enjoyable. (I've tried the old fashioned and the Pegu Club—Edgefield Penney's Gin, Combier liqueur d'orange, lime, Angostura, orange bitters—and both were great.)
Be warned, however—this version comes with a price tag (if you're looking for steak, it's $36). Don't get me wrong: The Zeus Café is in a different league than any of their other restaurants and pubs, but it's also geared to a different tax bracket.
For my first dinner I went with the lamb-bacon gnocchi ($18). The meat itself was good—a little tough, but not unbearably so—but the rest of the dish was completely overpowered by garlic. There were numerous times I stabbed at what I thought was one of the small white dumplings only to bite down on yet another garlic clove; then again, considering how dominant that flavor was across the dish, it may not have made any difference. The gnocchi itself was underwhelming—the texture was better than the freeze-dried stuff you can pick up at any grocery store, but not by much.
On my next visit I started with the asparagus ribbon and arugula salad ($10). It was enjoyable enough—the fingerling potatoes and a poached egg were a nice touch—but again it was dominated by a single flavor: vinegar. The asparagus tasted like it had spent days soaking in it. For an entrée I ordered the grilled pork chop ($21). The flavor was nice this time, and the plum chutney was a great complement, but, as Zeus' father knows too well, a rock wrapped in swaddling cloth is still a rock. The chop was a chore. My serrated butter knife was no match for its gristle. The server had that awkward moment when he picked up my plate wherein it's obvious that much of the dish was inedible. There was a violence to it. I should note also that the bed of cheese grits resembled, in appearance and flavor, the bland scrambled eggs they used to serve at camp.
The best meal I had was, ironically, the burger—the very item Zeus Café seems to be trying to distance itself from. The meat is leaps and bounds beyond a run-of-the-mill McMenamins burger, and it comes on an excellent house-made brioche bun with butter lettuce slaw, sharp cheddar, and grilled Walla Walla onions. In lieu of your standard fries or tots, the burger's served with three large jo-jos—nicely seasoned and ready to burn the inside of your mouth—as well as a delicious cauliflower piccalilli, heavy on the curry. I'd be back for it often if it wasn't $13, a dollar more than Little Bird's burger and a good 25 percent more than Slow Bar's.
If you're comparing Zeus Café to its brothers and sisters in the McMenamins family, it's clearly the gifted child. But compared with other restaurants in its price range, it underwhelms. And maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe hotel guests will be enough to keep the tables full. But the Crystal Hotel better hope their boarders don't catch wind of Clyde Common, the similarly priced and far superior restaurant at the Ace. They may lose out on more than just a dinner tab.