Double-dog dare

For anyone who doubts we live in a binary world, just think how often you hear the phrase, “There are two types of people in the world.” Such as: those who smoke and those who don’t, those who eat chopped liver and those who don’t, those who adore Broadway musicals and those who don’t.

Rightly or wrongly, we discriminate, make friends and choose lovers according to such distinctions. Personally, I might gladly divide the world into those who eat chicken-fried steak and those who don’t. There’s meaning in this dichotomy—larger than you might think.

Chicken-fried steak is like a dare. It’s a giant piece of mostly low-grade meat—veritable shoe leather at times—fried like an animal of unrelated origin and smothered in a thick, tranquil sea of gravy. It is a dish that signifies bravado, excess and the folly of youth. Those who eat it travel in the sidecar of life’s danger-mobile. It is akin to being shot out of a cannon or swallowing 50 eggs on a bet.

Years ago, I left the practice of eating chicken-fried steak behind. I grew more conservative in my habits, eschewing places that even listed chicken-fried steak on the menu. The late-night eating and hangovers that accompanied the chicken-fried steaks went away, too. But the awe of such times still lives within me, so I was not entirely surprised to find myself ordering one on a recent visit to Sky Bar Cafe.

Sky Bar Cafe is not related to the Sky Bars of Ian Schrager-hotels fame, like the one in the Mondrian in Los Angeles or the one at the Shore Club in Miami. Nor is it unrelated, however. It attempts to appeal to a hipper, more exciting nightlife crowd. It’s the kind of place where people who know nothing about Latin jazz can enjoy it anyway.

With an attractive L-shaped dining room and a mini-stage that actually holds a Latin-jazz trio on weekend nights, Sky Bar Cafe tends toward sleekness. Trendy drinks come in glasses with playful stemware. Beers like Fat Tire Amber Ale and Blue Moon are dressed in conical glassware, which lends a festive feel. Though the layout seems too open when the dining room is not full, it might be optimal for the after-dinner live-music scene.

At 8 p.m. on a weekend night, we sat in the modestly crowded dining room, which grew noticeably fuller as the evening progressed. We started with a round of drinks and an appetizer of light crab cakes, typical in execution—not too wet and not too dry, with the crab shredded throughout.

Following the starter was a choice of salad or soup, which accompanied each entree. Although the mixed green salad was plentiful, with quality dressing, and the clam chowder was flavorful and not too heavy, their presence seemed reminiscent of a dining era gone by—when every meal was served with a choice of soup or salad.

The menu itself hearkens back to an earlier time, when meatloaf, pork chops and spaghetti marinara were in high demand. At first, I thought the menu reflected a retro dining style that flew in the face of trendy nouveau cuisine. At the very least, I assumed it was a serious attempt at down-home cooking in an upscale environment. But upon closer look (and taste), there was no theme, just a hodgepodge of amateur cookery that fell short of the high expectations raised by its sleek veneer.

The Atlantic salmon, priced at $18.95, was overcooked on the grill and a touch fishy. The accompanying vegetables were a typical medley of zucchini, squash and broccoli. Much as our mothers would have wanted, a baked potato rounded out the trio of starch, vegetable and main dish.

The chicken sauté was full of healthful vegetables and chicken-breast chunks, tossed in a white-wine sauce. Though nice, it was uninspired. The eggplant Parmesan portobello was a similarly pedestrian endeavor. Chewy eggplant sat atop a mushroom cap in an uncomplicated, sweet red sauce. The addition of portobello was a unique change from the usual eggplant Parmesan, but the sauce, which tasted like it came from a jar, kept the dish from being a praiseworthy one.

Alas, what should have been the pièce de résistance, the chicken-fried steak, failed, too. Breaded differently from most diners’ styles, the specimen looked more like Japanese-style katsu, with sharper flecks and a darker hue. The large piece was pounded thin, leaving too much fry. The white gravy was plenty tasty, but it failed to compensate for the meat’s toughness. To my chagrin, both the creamy mashed potatoes and veggie medley surpassed the chicken-fried steak.

There are two types of people who would go to a place like Sky Bar Cafe: drinkers who eat and eaters who drink. It may be that Sky Bar Cafe isn’t focusing on the latter group—that it aims to attract the after-dinner crowd for drinks, music and an occasional late-night nosh. If that’s the case, so be it. We shall all go for drinks and music—as we might to its neighbor, the Torch Club. There’s nothing wrong with that. But Sky Bar Cafe is in a prime location to cater to both, filling a niche that’s wide open. It would be a shame to let that opportunity pass.