If you ask whether Vue, the new place atop the Chase Bank tower downtown, is a room with a view, the answer, providing you sit on the perimeter, is a definite yes. If you ask whether it's a lounge, I would say probably say yes again, judging by the clientele drifting out of the elevator and toward the nightclub about 11 p.m. But, if the question is whether Vue is a restaurant, I must demure with "I'm not really sure."
I have eaten there three times, once as a happy-hour barfly, once for early evening appetizers and sides, and once for a full meal after 8 p.m. Formerly occupied by Bakers 360, the cavernous space, with one enormous dining area and a few smaller ones, has been virtually empty each time.
This is a shame. Despite the service being pleasant if slightly unpolished, the price point somewhat high, and the temperature frequently borderline chilly, the view is outstanding and the food has some strong points too worthy to be ignored.
First, there is sushi. Sure, the concept of a sushi bar in a restaurant feels dated, and I noticed a bag of refrigerated rice being microwaved to room temperature — i.e., it wasn't super-fresh. Nevertheless, the Wildcat sushi is pretty good. Shrimp, avocado and rice come wrapped in nori, and the roll is topped with crab salad, drizzled with chili mayonnaise and scattered with crunchy, warm tempura batter.
This flavor and texture profile is similar to that of the calamari appetizer, except with that you get lots of frisée, roasted peanuts and sesame vinaigrette. It's a huge "snack" whose sole shortcoming was the portion of battered squid that was almost white and looked eerily raw. Order it to save money and combine salad and starter courses into one because neither the Caesar nor the Bibb lettuce salads were especially interesting.
Citrus braised pork belly sounded like a nice idea, but everything else on the plate — from cornbread to chutney — was overpoweringly sweet, and the citrus wasn't tart enough to balance that out. Actually, the fondness for sweet crosses the line other times, like with the honey butter served with the bread, or the over-the-top dose of caramel on the deep-fried cheesecake, a dessert in and of itself just so crazy that it really doesn't need to push any envelopes.
The entrees are where the best examples of the kitchen's work can be found.
The black grouper special, for instance, was a thick filet that flaked to perfection. The tomato and arbol chili sauce was marvelous: sweet, tart, and spicy in equal measure. There were slivers of golden garlic and cubes of sweet potatoes throughout.
Nor could you lose with the pork chop, nicely grilled and served on a brilliantly conceived and terrific bed of hoppin' John and lovely puréed corn.
This particular evening, the kitchen ran out of the carrots and mustard greens that paired with these dishes, but the substitutions were higher end, including fat spears of grilled asparagus.
The servings at Vue are generous, so unless you are trying to put together some vegetarian options as a meal, I wouldn't bother much with the unadorned side of green beans or the small ramekin of crunchy macaroni and cheese. They are overpriced for what you get.
It is not unusual for restaurants with spectacular vistas to coast on that alone, but I have never understood — or more truthfully, respected — this decision. Vue may legitimately be prioritizing its club scene, but the dining experience could be so much better if someone stepped back and reconsidered important details of ambience and organization. There is real potential happening in the kitchen.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.