Walter Mencken 2:37 p.m., March 1
Occupying a busy section of 5th Ave in Hillcrest, R-Gang is an upscale version of the American comfort food restaurants that decorate the culinary landscape from coast to coast. The atmosphere is very casual and the ambiance is warmer and more open than other, equally hip places that cultivate an oftentimes dark and moody demeanor.
The patio at R-Gang seems central to the design scheme rather than being an afterthought as it provides a lot of shelter and warmth even on cooler spring nights. As summer waxes, the outdoor seating will become still more desirable.
The restaurant's official position is that the food is "retro American" with a "keep it simple, stupid" ethic prevailing over fussy techniques. Still, the dishes I experienced revealed a lot of attention to detail in preparation. Tater tots ($7), for one, had clearly been produced with some care to achieve a uniformly tender consistency that was quite unlike the tots Napoleon Dynamite might carry around in his pockets. They had been stuffed with herbs and cheese that meshed quite nicely with the delicate ranch dip. Monkey bread ($5) had the benefit of being inexpensive, but didn't deliver much more than a vague, chewy, cheesiness.
R-Gang has priced about a third of the entrees over $20. Eighteen months ago, this would have kicked the restaurant up into the next tax bracket, but now that the economy is getting back in order the extra expense justifies some more elaborate presentations in a more casual restau. An order of beef cheeks ($21.50) had been braised in red wine and served atop a black pepper kugel (a noodle dish bound with a white sauce) with a sour cream and onion sauce. The fork-tender cheeks had been cooked to a perfect, silky texture and the dish was rich and filling. The crispy onions brought back delightful memories of past casseroles that exhibit the "retro American" paradigm.
On their own, each of the heavily spiced components of the dish would have been great on its own. However, the combination of pepper coulis, tarragon kugel, and the rich, onion gravy that smothered the entire dish was overwhelming and some of the flavors refused to set their differences aside and play nicely together; a fact which flagrantly jibes with the "keep it simple" ideal.
Still, the fine execution of the basic techniques that R-Gang's kitchen is evidently able to perform can't be denied. Perhaps in some of the simpler dishes, like the seared black cod with malt vinegar beurre blanc ($21), that technical know-how could be allowed to come to fruition.
3683 Fith Avenue
Tu-Th 11-3 5-11
Fri-Sat 9-3 5-11