Like Bill Clinton executing a legalistic pirouette over what the meaning of “is” is, the time has come to debate the definition of “casual.” ALX Gastropub, a spinoff of expense-account destination Alexander’s Steakhouse, is the very opposite of casual in terms of its prices and its well-chosen wine list, but casual to the point of sloppy in almost every other arena.
This is 2018 and it’s in SoMa — around the block from top-tier Benu, even — but ALX is seriously overcharging people for a cutesy, quasi-infantilizing experience with too many flavorless dishes. The entire project is fundamentally off-center, but the clash between prices and atmosphere is the biggest error in judgment. I’m all for the return of comfort foods that evoke happy childhood memories, but when you call the tater tots “Totes M’Goats Tots,” put them next to wines that average close to $20 by the glass, then serve them under weird yellow lighting, it feels less like a casual adaptation of something elegant than a rogue, experimental Applebee’s concept whose manager has become corrupted by a ring.
As I’ve said in the past, I try not to get overly hung up on service or other points of a dining experience that aren’t consistent across multiple visits, because that doesn’t seem useful in a restaurant review. It’s partly because I remember the stress-dreams I endured most nights when I worked in the industry, but also, I’m not here to vent à la those aggrieved Yelpers for whom “needless to say, I won’t be coming back” constitutes the final blow against a vanquished enemy.
But the service at ALX is unsatisfactory to the point where it seems like front-of-house staff simply haven’t been trained in the basics. A host awkwardly half-attempted to seat us at the too-crowded bar, then abandoned us without menus at a two-top. Water glasses were placed and filled at the absolute edge of the table. For the first time in eons, I encountered a server who chewed gum. (The entire time.) On another visit, the server said, “The kitchen’s about to close. Were you guys going to want any dessert?” Granted, it was during the 9 p.m. hour on a Wednesday and things were winding down, but that’s just graceless. It’s not fair to the staff to throw them to the wolves like that.
Some of Chef Jessie Lugo’s dishes were good. A red flatbread with chorizo and cheese curds ($15 for four pieces) was tasty, although chorizo is the ketchup of meats. The A+ mac-and-cheese — with five different types of cheese, including gruyere, which should be mandatory — was genuinely refined and almost dark in its flavor. While everyone should know better than to order a $38 “Foie-Gyu Burger,” the standard Olivier Butchery burger ($15) was great, nailing that juicy-fatty-drippy quality wherein making a small mess is part of the appeal. The kitchen was out of regular buns, though, and offered us slider buns or lettuce cups. We made do with sliders.
Many of the dishes, though, were not good. I’m simply puzzled by what happened with the $14 salmon chop-chop, which had no taste to speak of apart from filling my sinus passages with the herbaceous odor of avocado-olive tapenade, and came with crostini that were stale beyond stale. While I applaud anyone for resisting the reflex to put goat cheese on a beet salad, the $12 Beets by Meric was a plate of raw kale with a few beets thrown in, a very tiny quantity of bacon, and a dressing that desperately needed more acid or oomph. (Credit where credit’s due, though: That’s a solid name.)
Although their cilantro-mint-lime-fish sauce combination was novel, the water buffalo wings ($14) were undercooked, their spicy sauce penetrating no further than the skin. The beer-can chicken entree was similarly underdone — something of a fatal flaw for a $28 dish. Its dirty rice was lifeless apart from the muddy-eucalyptoid flavor of filé powder, which clashed with the vaguely South Asian yogurt atop the dark meat. Lemon added as little to either component as the ornamental pepper did. The butternut tortellini ($22 for five rosette-size pieces) was similarly beset with internal contradiction, its squash filling disappearing into the salsa verde. And the $36 pork porterhouse was juicy, but seemingly seasoned with nothing beyond S&P and two branches of broccolini. Why say “cipollini” when there’s only one little onion to mop up the jus? And what could possibly justify spending almost $40 on a simply prepared pork chop?
Desserts include milk-and-cookies ($10, but you do get that glass of milk) and some sorbets and ice creams, along with a $12 “Papi Churro.” The menu says to “ask about me” — although why not just, you know, write it down on there? — and if a quest for information when you’re already full isn’t off-putting, you should do so. It’s a churro curled up in the shape of a taco, with avocado ice cream and the usual Mexican chocolate and dulce de leche dipping sauces. Avocado ice cream is inherently creamy, and the whole thing is delightful, a great idea done well. I wish it didn’t come in a pie pan, though.
ALX’s wine list is similarly good. The Terre Rouge Syrah and the earthier Follette Pinot Noir lent gravitas to the pork porterhouse and held up against more aggressive flavors like the mac-and-cheese, and many of the $13-to-$17 cocktails are creative and fun. I’m particularly fond of the basil-forward Scranton Strangler and the lemongrass-and-smoke notes of the Benicillin, made with Laphroaig.
But if the casualness is debatable, then so is the use of “gastropub,” a British import that years of overuse pounded all sense out of. I don’t think a gastropub needs to serve a Sunday roast, but if that word has any meaning left, it really has to put beer in the foreground. In spite of a bar long enough to embed three flatscreens over it with plenty of room to spare, ALX has just six taps, all of them serving local and very well-known beers — and even the cheapest pints, like Sierra Nevada, will set you back $9.
Some of these woes can be blamed on the location. ALX is not in an SFO terminal, as the airport-code name suggests, but in a new building that probably charges a (g)astronomical amount of money for the privilege of opening a restaurant in its ground floor. Throw in the proximity of the Moscone Center and you can see how this restaurant feeds on convention traffic like a flower shop off a funeral home, cordoning off parties of Software-Americans from the rest of us via retractable stanchions that look pilfered from a branch of a defunct savings bank.
The overall decor is unfortunate, with the requisite giant mural and plenty of framed photographs of food thrown everywhere to fill up space. One wall has three of them placed so artlessly above a door frame that I couldn’t stop staring. That door opens into a private dining room, because nothing bespeaks casual like the well-heeled dining in seclusion. At least we can pinpoint exactly where the investors will convene when they decide to chuck ALX into the void and start afresh.
ALX Gastropub, 680 Folsom St., 425-266-1111 or alxgastropub.com