The sporting life

At 8 p.m. one recent Saturday evening, my husband and I faced a dilemma. We had planned to go out for dinner, but game six of the Stanley Cup playoffs was headed into overtime. My husband is Canadian, and I had money on the Calgary Flames in his family’s hockey pool, so abandoning the game was out of the question. As it happened, however, our dinner plans were at Joey B’s, a strange hybrid of sports bar and fine-dining restaurant.

The ambitious, relatively pricey dinner menu accords oddly with the big-screen TVs, though there is a quieter, more elegant dining area in the back of the large space. One of the big screens was tuned to the hockey game, however, so we settled in at a bar table. It could have been a perfect evening, but neither the food nor the service (nor the performance of the Flames) was quite what we had hoped for. The game ended with a goal by Tampa Bay; the dinner ended with a condition my husband described as “sports-bar belly.”

Joey B’s has two menus: a casual bar menu, featuring pizzas and the like, and a formal dinner menu. The wine list was safe but uninspiring. There’s also a cocktail list that runs to sweet, trendy choices like the lemonhead, a potent concoction served in a big martini glass rimmed with bright-yellow sugar crystals.

The atmosphere is slickly corporate, but the food tries hard—perhaps too hard—for distinction. The kitchen loads up everything with sides, sauces and flourishes. With grilled halibut, for instance, the menu promises “seared bone marrow, edamame beans and grapefruit segments with red-pepper dill sauce and forbidden rice.” I get worried when I see that many elements on one plate. Many restaurants striving for elegance just beyond their grasp have this lily-gilding tendency.

I suspected the simpler dishes might be the winners, so we tried an appetizer that seemed like a slam dunk: the “bag o’ fries,” which came in a cute paper bag, with three shot glasses of dipping sauces. The promised “chunky bleu cheese dressing” was actually thin and chunk-free, but its pungency was good with the thick, soft, spiced fries, as were ketchup and malt vinegar.

Meanwhile, I ordered a beet salad with mâche and onion sprouts, the least-complicated-sounding salad. The concept was good, but the execution was spotty. Half the beets were overcooked, and the other half resistant to the fork, but all had a nice tangy marinade. Tender mâche—a newly fashionable French salad green—demands a light hand with dressing if its delicate flavor is to shine through, but the salad was overdressed. Under some of the wilting mâche, I found a drowned tangle of sprouts.

Our entrees arrived when we were no more than half finished with the starters, and they were set across the table for us to retrieve. Granted, we were sitting in the bar area, so service was bound to be on the casual side, but isn’t this the kind of situation heat lamps were invented for? The dishes should have been kept warm in the kitchen until we finished. As it was, we had to maneuver all the big plates around awkwardly to get our main dishes. Moreover, the uneaten fries languished on the table until the dessert course was cleared.

Both main courses were enormous. The duck arrived in two preparations: a too-salty house-cured breast and a mound of shredded confit. This was accompanied by a sweet-potato hash, oven-dried figs and a side of grilled asparagus and zucchini, plus a raspberry-duck reduction sauce. The plate was overwhelmingly sweet and rich.

The other main course, molasses-marinated hanger steak, offered more textural and flavor variation. The crunchy fried baby artichokes had a little too much texture, in fact; inadequate trimming left some thorns on the leaves. The unctuous potato gratin was a much-needed savory balance for the sweet marinade, which masked the steak’s beefy flavor. Had things stopped with those three elements, I would have like the dish better, but there was also compound butter, a dissonant parsley sauce and the same vegetables that adorned the duck. Sometimes, more actually is less.

The desserts were forcefully sweet and unsophisticated—good in the way that anything with enough sugar can be. Bananas flambé were, curiously, not evidently flambéed (not tableside, anyway), but they were caramely and gooey. The s’mores were similarly sticky: sandwiches of graham crackers, lightly toasted marshmallows and melted milk chocolate. They would have been better with dark chocolate, which would have given the concoction a bitter edge.

Edginess, however, is not Joey B’s forte, and it doesn’t have to be. With its prime location near the Capitol, I suspect the restaurant will pack them in for after-work drinks and snacks or casual lunches. From what we saw of the bar menu, it’s a good pick for such occasions. It’s less successful at turning out fancy, high-end entrees, though it might be a good choice if your wedding anniversary coincides with a major sporting event. Just choose carefully, push the extra garnishes aside and don’t clean your plate, lest you, too, suffer from sports-bar belly.