Theater in the round
The Town Lounge1595 Eureka Rd.
Roseville, CA 95661
It’s funny how powerful a restaurant’s name can be. I’m sure the restaurateurs behind Roseville’s Town Lounge intended their restaurant’s moniker to sound swank and retro, a nod to the elegant supper clubs of an earlier era. “Town Lounge” happens, however, to also be the name of a divey bar in my hometown, so I have to deliberately shed that association to see the place on its own terms.
If I hadn’t been able to do that in advance, I think stepping into the restaurant’s sleek foyer would have done it. The space at first looks somewhat compact, but there’s room for a full bar at the back; a round, sunken central dining room; and private or semiprivate dining spaces radiating off the central area. There’s also a performance space, which on the night we were there was occupied by a chanteuse crooning standards. All this is canopied by a tent-like, ruched beige fabric ceiling, which gives one the sense of being under a fancy wedding tent or an extremely large mushroom.
The mood of deliberately informal modern luxury is matched by the food, which takes an eclectic and often showy approach. Service, on the other hand, was down-to-earth and chirpy, of the first-name-introduction variety. At first, our server seemed a little too much like she had strayed from a nearby Applebee’s, but her evident sincerity grew on us. (The tendency to let water glasses languish unfilled, however, did not.)
There’s a new-Asian flair to many of the dishes, particularly the appetizers, such as coconut tempura shrimp, ahi tuna tartare with pickled ginger, and crispy chicken spring rolls. Other listings are classics in other culinary idioms, like the tomato-basil bruschetta, Andalusian gazpacho, and an oddly old-school-French entree of sole stuffed with crab and shrimp. The overall effect is that of a menu without a clear guiding principle behind it, besides the (understandable) plan of creating a lot of appealing menu descriptions that will move food, as in the plethora of fried things with dipping sauces.
The menu appears to change frequently; ours had a series of asterisks to indicate new dishes and was dated 7/13 in the corner. We were there not too long after that date, on one of the most broiling-hot nights in recent memory. It was therefore a surprise to find a dish like braised short ribs among the new additions, and several other wintry-sounding courses on offer, such as steak with blue-cheese crust, seafood risotto with Italian sausage, or gnocchi with a three-mushroom cream sauce and truffle oil. Nevertheless, the menu was somewhat weighted toward fish and shellfish dishes.
We started out with those tempura coconut shrimp, which had a thick, crunchy battered crust, studded with coconut, enclosing big, fleshy, fresh-tasting shrimp. Their sweetness was outdone by the sticky plum dipping sauce, but it was cut by a zingy slaw of savoy cabbage and shredded carrots. It was prettily presented—highly dressed-up plates are the norm at the Town Lounge—with a strip of banana leaf nattily bisecting the plate, but there were just five shrimp, a number that looks nice on the plate but is awkward to divide among almost any number of diners.
We also ended up sharing a bowl of the gazpacho, drawn by the promise of coolness. It delivered on that but not on the ripe tomato flavor I expect from gazpacho. It was sweet, with a tangy and garlicky undertone, but the clear flavors of tomatoes and cucumbers that make gazpacho so refreshing were lost in the shuffle of seasonings. In addition, the soup was topped with what the menu called a sherry crème fraîche (I couldn’t distinguish the subtle sherry flavor) and a pleasant swirl of basil cream, plus a chiffonade of basil and sliced green onions. All of this was nice in theory, but in practice it overwhelmed what should be a simple soup.
My mother, with whom I was dining, ordered the stuffed sole, which was a showy but slightly disappointing dish. The quiet flavor of sole was drowned out by the seafood within, and the sauce napping it all was bland. The asparagus orzo alongside was delicious, however, and there was a riot of colorful vegetables as well.
My coriander-dusted halibut precariously topped a mound of tomato-olive couscous, with more tomatoes, olives and zippy preserved lemons ringing it and stalks of crisp-tender asparagus sticking out from under it. The halibut was an au-courant sort of dish and the only one on the menu displaying Moroccan leanings. The fish itself was perfect, with a slightly crunchy, nicely spiced exterior and a perfectly cooked, moist interior. The couscous committed the cardinal couscous sin, alas, of being mushy and wet.
Textural problems also bedeviled our dessert, a piping-hot mixed berry cobbler with a nutty, buttery, somewhat under-baked but pleasantly flavored topping. The berry mixture was lovely and slightly tart, though, and the house-made ice cream melting over the top was good, too. It ended the dinner on a homey note, despite the more theatrical leanings and presentation of the rest of the menu. There’s some good cooking (and some missteps) happening in the kitchen at the Town Lounge, and a nice setting to show it off, but the restaurant could stand to find a more coherent self-presentation and drop some of its excess stage business.