A pair of modest-sized crabcakes are typical of the Delaware Bay region, seasoned with Old Bay spice mix, a few bits of bell pepper and scallion greens, and a lot of salt mixed into the mayonnaise binding. There's no bready filler, but the lump crabmeat -- again, sans SD-taboo "seafoody" flavors -- is nothing to write home about. A spicy coral remoulade for dipping streaks the plate, and next to the cakes is a small salad of spring mix and applewood bacon chunks in a slightly harsh vinaigrette. A Caesar salad was nothing special either, as the lettuce was limp and the pair of anchovies decorating the top were dry. "Where's the olive oil?" Provvi quipped. The croutons consisted of two slices of toasted baguette, one of them spread with Kalamata tapenade.
Crispy Buffalo Oysters are the maritime equivalent of chicken "Buffalo wings," with five bottled bivalves for the protein, drenched with Crystal hot sauce from Louisiana. Unlike the famous version invented by the gals in Buffalo, there's no melted butter added to it to soften the heat -- the sauce is spicy, but not good-spicy. It comes with a cole slaw of red-and-white cabbage shreds, cucumber wedges, julienned green apple, and carrots in a mayo-and-vinegar dressing enlivened by chunks of blue cheese. The slaw is placed over more hot sauce, which makes the plate look like the site of a bloodbath.
After learning about the lobster meat at lunch, we decided against ordering the lobster-mac entrée for dinner, figuring it would taste a lot like the version we didn't like at Dussini's a few weeks ago. Instead, we went for the Kobe beefburger ($22) and were glad of it. C Level may be to blame for the disappearance of Snake River Kobe burgers from Trader Joe's freezer case -- the restaurant is using giant quantities of it in this popular and frequent off-menu "special." "It's awesome, it's so tender," said the waitress. "They feed the cows sake and give them massages." The sake and massage folklore isn't exactly true, the owner of Snake River Farms told me a couple of years ago -- the steers are just plump Wagyu breed cattle, carefully raised in a more wholesome environment than the normal feedlot. One of the joys of the dish is that the beef (ground by Snake River) is reasonably safe to order rare -- and when you do, that's how the kitchen grills it. The garnishes include portobello mushroom slices, plus tomato and lettuce. Alongside comes a delightful green apple "sauerkraut," its sweet-sour dressing spiced with cinnamon, plus a conical wire basket of slim, salty, herbed and Parmesan-flecked french fries, which were lukewarm when they reached us. (The regular C-level burger is also worth a try, made with good ground sirloin from Newport Meats, the same company that handles most of Snake River's Kobe.)
The most serious entrée is the diablo brick chicken, "marinated in Dijon mustard for 40 hours," the waitress told us, and served with gorgonzola polenta. The portion is an airline cut (breast plus wing-drumette) infused with mustard flavor, but with slightly dry meat. The polenta is soft and heavy on cheese, as lumpy as Mommy's dreaded cream of wheat cereal. Filling out the selection was a Parmesan crisp sprinkled with crushed red chilies, a large boiled asparagus spear, and a pillow of cooked arugula.
A special of fennel-crusted mahimahi was less than special; for that matter, it was less than fennel-crusted. The fish was cooked to local taste -- a little dry -- and came with a wild rice mix and grilled baby bok choy. We liked the bok choy.
A full-time pastry chef creates all the desserts. Provvi loves chocolate, so we ordered her a mud pie -- rather grainy chocolate ice cream topped with whipped cream and a sprinkling of nuts, drizzled with aggressively sweet chocolate syrup (resembling Smucker's banana-split sauce), atop a fudgy "chocolate decadence" crust that tastes as if it's made of supermarket-quality cooking chocolate rather than a premier brand. You have to love really sweet sweets to enjoy this one. A key lime pie had a graham cracker crust shaped into a "cup," like a strawberry shortcake. The filling was a weighty lime pudding topped with stiff whipped cream. Perhaps a better choice for our tastes would have been the ice cream trio; since both the ice cream and the waffle cones are made in-house, I'm tempted to call them Ice Cream Cohns.
What the Cohns are good at is restaurant design and ambience -- creating varied, handsome environments to sip, talk, and nosh. C-level is typical. "I'll bring my out-of-town guests here," said Provvi as we left. "They're not foodies anyway." The restaurant's name and its motto are both accurate. The food is pretty much C-level -- as in a passing grade of C. The motto is "views to dine for," and that sums it up. With so much to fill the eye, you hardly notice what you're eating or how much you're paying for it. Next week, if all goes as planned, we'll check out Island Prime, the more formal dinner house.
ABOUT C LEVEL
Executive chef-partner Deborah Scott was on vacation the week I went to C Level, so I spoke with chef de cuisine Mike Suttles. Mike has been with the Cohn group for four years, previously cooking under Jonathan Hale at Blue Point, the Cohns' fine-dining seafood restaurant. I asked how Island Prime's kitchen handled having two very different restaurants on a single site. "There are two separate lines in one kitchen," he said. "We have separate staffs -- but one's twice as busy and makes the same amount of money as the other one. C Level is the really busy one. Last Wednesday [the day I lunched there -- N.W.] we had an absolutely full house from three in the afternoon until nine o'clock at night."
The menu has numerous cheese dishes on it, not what you'd expect from Scott, whose cuisine at Kemo Sabe and Indigo Grill emphasizes spice and audacity, rather than C Level's gooey comforts. "Deborah grew up in Virginia," said Mike, "and this food is more of what comes from her background in the Low Country -- like, the she-crab soup and crab cakes come from that. She was calling her mom a lot for recipes, and her mom sounds like a real down-home, country-cookin' kind of gal."