Some pictures speak for themselves, but this one you’re looking at of grilled octopus, beet salad and mozzarella egg rolls requires an explanation. A photo of the interior of Branch 27, the new West Town bistro from Cary Michael (formerly of Rockit Bar and Grill) and Howard Natinsky (Five Star, Fat Cat), would certainly have been simpler. The remodeled branch of the public library is, if nothing else, an immensely comfortable space, with a glass wall of doors that open onto the sidewalk and a skylit back room that lends the spacious restaurant an airy indoor-outdoor feel. But however lovely, a shot of exposed brick walls adorned with vintage typographic paraphernalia wouldn’t have been particularly useful for understanding what chef Bob Zrenner (of the now-defunct Graze) is trying to do here.
For that, we have to go back to the close-up food photo. Let’s start with the octopus: Smoky from the grill, sweet and juicy from the (okay, out-of-season) heirloom tomatoes, salty from the olives, emitting fragrant and pungent garlicy heat, it was conceptually spot-on, well-executed and charmingly presented in a cast-iron skillet. And it was nothing if not bewildering. By what logic had this dish found its way onto the same menu as a “mozzarella egg roll,” a dish that requires little more than the ingenuity of a blazed Phish fan? And how had the kitchen sent out a nearly flawless dish of octopus but managed to entirely omit that enormous hunk of herbed goat cheese you see pictured on the beet salad?
Suspicious that the bar food was obscuring more hidden gems like the octopus, I veered toward the bistro-like end of the menu, only to be disappointed: mushy rounds of tuna tartare; rubberish scallops with spinach-ricotta ravioli (the menu said pumpkin, but considering the season, I was actually relieved when something completely different showed up unannounced) whose exteriors tasted more like store-bought wonton wrappers than fresh pasta; an enormous (and unseasoned) lamb shank set atop bland, slightly starchy white beans. A rustic apple tart outperformed both dry lemon pound cake and a superdense block of cherry-studded bread pudding by a landslide—not for apples or crust of any remarkable quality but merely for the delicious scoop of cinnamon ice cream on top.
So maybe the octopus set up unrealistic expectations for the rest of the menu, most of which seems to be trying to do little more than serve the people what they want: well-executed fried food. And true to form, once hit with a generous squeeze of lemon and dipped in tartar sauce, the calamari appetizer and perch entrée were greaseless successes. But the burger posed some serious problems: Ordered medium-rare on my first visit, it came out nearly raw. On my second trip, I requested medium, and received it, but I realized it was the disappointing, homogenous quality of the meat and the flaccid sesame bun (collapsing to nothing after mere moments beneath the weight of the burger) that were really driving this thing into the ground.
As much if not more than the food, the beer and wine list really raises doubts. Hefty markups on hard-to-source wines are par for the course in restaurants, but paying inflated prices for mass-produced brands like Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc ($38 a bottle) never seems fair. In fact, it leaves you with the same ripped-off feeling of having bafflingly inconsistent meals from a chef with a good track record in a space with the potential to be a neighborhood gem.