If you ask someone whether they like fast service at restaurants, they will almost certainly answer yes. It’s worth thinking about, because some things really can’t be rushed.
These thoughts came to mind after dinner at Michael’s Bar & Grill, a Louisiana-style restaurant in Burbank. The interior is modern and pleasant, with New Orleans artwork setting the mood and bouncy pop playing in the background. Many regional restaurants lay on the hickitude with a trowel; finding one that is both Southern and sophisticated was a pleasant surprise.
Michael’s called itself a Cajun restaurant, but offers items from New Orleans’ creole tradition as well. The menu is a parade of old favorites, with a few steaks and Italian specialties — no Cajun blackened spaghetti or other hare-brained items. Those Italian items actually reflect traditional influences, because Sicilians started immigrating to Louisiana while it was still owned by the French.
We started with fried alligator nuggets, usually $11 but half price during happy hour. Gator is chewy when underdone, so some chefs overcompensate and fry it to jerky. Whoever was running the kitchen here has the timing down, because it was just right, the flavor of the meat apparent beneath a lightly spiced breading. The gentle shot of red pepper in that coating and the rich, mustardy remoulade sauce raised our expectations of the kitchen.
The next item was an unconventional Caesar salad, the usual romaine and anchovy-parmesan dressing with corn and fried onions added. I’m a traditionalist about Caesars, but I admit that this one was good. The fried onions fit in with the other flavors, and the roasted corn added a slight sweetness and an interesting texture. The dressing might have been a bit bland without those onions, but as it was served it was very satisfying.
Our main courses were braised short ribs and a Cajun platter that included gumbo, jambalaya and shrimp creole. Our server recommended the shrimp with ètoufee sauce rather than creole, which I chose as I find that spicy sauce more interesting. We expected that it would take a while to arrive since it takes time for short ribs to finish braising, so were surprised when everything arrived while we were still working on the salad.
I started with gumbo, finding it very tasty with a good balance of sausage and shrimp, and thought the restaurant had hit a home run until my companion offered a bite of short rib. It was barely warm, obviously cooked some time earlier and insufficiently reheated. I flagged down our server, who took it back and offered to “nuke it.” For $23 we had expected steak that wasn’t microwaved, but he was back two minutes later with the same plate, this time hotter.
While he was gone I tried my other items. The ètoufee was very mild, a shadow of the spicy sauce I had expected, and the jambalaya barely warm — apparently they’d hurried with mine too. The red beans and rice and the vegetable mix that accompanied my main items were good, the gumbo excellent, but my overall feeling was disappointment. My companion’s short ribs were a generous portion of nothing special — a big hunk of tender meat in a mild gravy. It was tender but a bit dry at the center, which is not the effect you get from properly braised short ribs.
We finished with good fresh beignets, the New Orleans doughnuts, which are complimentary on Wednesdays. Our final feeling was frustration over how close this restaurant had come to getting it right. They obviously have a feeling for the most interesting regional cuisine in America, but are not living up to their potential. I’d return to Michael’s for salads, fried items and that gumbo, because this kitchen has talent when they don’t take shortcuts.
What: Michael’s Bar & Grill
Where: 2825 W. Olive Ave., Burbank; open for lunch and dinner, adjacent parking lot. Full bar, wheelchair OK.
Contact: michaelsbarandgrill.com and (818) 842-3700.