Culinary Dropout, the newly opened restaurant at the Hard Rock Hotel, is being called an “amped-up gastropub,” where hipness is on tap, bolstered by a menu conceived by Sam Fox, CEO of the rapidly growing Fox Restaurant Concepts.
This is the second Culinary Dropout, with a third already planned. The original is in Scottsdale, Ariz., a tony community where many concept restaurants are test-marketed, and where ones such as Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and the healthy place called True Food Kitchen (also a Fox chain) were born. And like those, Culinary Dropout is hugely popular in Arizona. Why? My guess is that it pushes all the right buttons with its intended crowd.
One certainly drinks well here, for example. A clever cardboard notebook of “Vices” features top-notch cocktails, such as the Bacon Bloody, with bacon-infused Skyy vodka, Worcestershire sauce, cracked pepper and spiced tomato, while El Matador—a margarita, sort of—gets the royal treatment: Hornitos añejo, ginger agave, orange bitters and a splash of St-Germain.
And some of the food is well conceived and well prepared. The antipasto list, for one, has delicious cold cuts, including jamón Ibérico and culatello, and terrific vegetables such as grilled asparagus, 12-hour roasted tomatoes (a must) and nicely roasted beets. And the jambalaya entrée, studded with Andouille sausage, chicken, shrimp and okra, is a great complete meal or share plate with a sneaky, spicy kick.
But this new tradition of charging for bread—albeit good, crusty bread with olive oil ($4)—is one I don’t wish to see continued. Soft pretzels and provolone fondue ($12)? Doughy hunks in a basket paired with a flavorless cheese dip that cloys after one piece. And a grilled artichoke with lemon aioli blurred the line between charred and burned.
Generally, what I had was a mixed bag. My Kusshi oysters were terrific, fresh and briny, and house potato chips, while not extraordinary, come with an amazing onion dip I’d love to eat every day.
The chopped vegetable salad is an interesting blend of artichokes, asparagus, corn, beets, avocado, pistachio nuts and Parmesan cheese, but I would have liked it better with less, or even without lettuce. My pork-belly Cubano sandwich was greasy, in no small part because of a fatty chunk of pork belly in the sandwich’s dead center.
My friendly, well-informed server bragged about the fried chicken, a thick-crusted version served with mashed potatoes, gravy and a puffy biscuit that needed less baking powder and more shortening. The Korean-style rib-eye cap, however, is delicious, stir-fried with bean sprouts and other Asian veggies. As to the 24-hour ribs, they are smoky to the extreme, fork-tender and slathered with a thick sauce that tastes like pure molasses with a touch of jalapeño. Next time, I’m having the sauce on the side.
Much as I am amused by the name—and love the green leather sofas, sprawling patio, subway-tiled open kitchen and deco beaded chandeliers—Culinary Dropout might make the gastropub concept passé before it even matures in our city. This certainly isn’t London, where the gastropub was born and where you’ll find potted smoked mackerel or beef red-wine pie at The Eagle. And we’re not even New York, a city with gastropubs such as the Spotted Pig and its radical menu of innovative pub grub.
That’s not to say there aren’t reasons to pay Culinary Dropout a visit.
The tattooed and pierced staff is happy in their palette of grays, plaids and jeans, and the overall vibe is great—more live music bar with fun, cocktail-and-beer-friendly food than restaurant with a bar scene. I also love the indoor/outdoor thing with the garage-door-style walls, even if the music they play is too jarring for my outmoded musical tastes. Indeed, there is no doubt that Culinary Dropout is “amped up.” Well, hey, this is the Hard Rock, after all.