The name of this restaurant demands that one question be answered first: So, how’s that view? Well, it’s impressive. Especially if the weather cooperates and you can get a seat outside. Up on the 10th floor roof there are various heating elements, and even a plastic geodesic tent that fits over one table to keep out of the chill, with an airy view of Great American Ball Park, the Freedom Center, and part of the Skystar ferris wheel.
Inside, though, unless you get a drink at the bar and can sit at one of the plush couches, you won’t see quite as much. The tables for diners aren’t next to the windows, so depending on your seat, you might see some of a magical wheel of lights turning in the night sky. Or you might get a view of an empty office building being vacuumed. The food, it turns out, is much the same: glimpses, with occasional wonders.
The cocktail list tells you a lot about the atmosphere at The View at Shires’ Garden. Some restaurants create a whole list of original drinks. Here, it’s the classics: things like the Sazerac and the old fashioned. The whole dining area, in fact, is imbued with a sense of the past, from the Civil War–era portraits of Grant and Lincoln to the unburnished grand piano in the corner. Even the name refers to a 19th century British aristocrat, William Shires, who owned the land between Third and Fourth streets before the site was designated for Judge Jacob Burnet’s estate.
Three of the four entrées—coq au vin, a fancy burger, and a rib eye with blue cheese sauce—feel like they could come from the menu of some grand but dusty old hotel. The more extensive small plate menu, meanwhile, spans the globe, picking up ideas from Thailand, Latin America, and the Middle East. Unfortunately, there is no clear pattern—be it modern-eclectic or traditionalist—to predict the successes and failures here.
There are definite treasures among the small plates. The fall salad has a wonderfully tart, bright berry vinaigrette, with pieces of delicata squash and crunchy pepitas. The sweet potato soup, meanwhile, has a nice light texture from the addition of pureed apples, along with an intense but subtle spice from curry oil. And the classic garlic-and-shallot preparation for mussels was enlivened by a dose of smokiness and heat.
Other plates only demonstrate that it isn’t possible to do every kind of cuisine well. The couscous under the prawns was basically flavorless, and the chimichurri sauce wasn’t vibrant enough to compensate. Jumping to another continent, the falafel—always difficult to get right—is dense and chalky instead of moist and crumbly. Meanwhile, over in Thailand, the crab satay was fried several shades too dark (this also happened with the potatoes, which were almost burnt, that came with the burger).
It is telling that, even in the midst of these mistakes, there are still wonderful things happening on each plate, like a salad of mustardy greens and tomatoes under the satay and the tangy pieces of apricot on the greens served with the falafel.
In general, I wanted more brightness on the plate. When winter approaches, we crave these reminders of summer’s bounty through fermented and pickled things and fresh herbs—whatever we can keep alive in the cold. The Shires’ menu—and they deserve credit for this—is full of genuinely seasonal dishes, like the spaghetti squash, but many were crying out for something vibrant, even something as simple as fresh herbs. The squash dish, for example, comes with a decent creamy pecorino Alfredo sauce, but it is soft and creamy all the way through. Without a bit of crunch or intensity, or even a splash of color, it never quite wakes up. Meanwhile, the burger is top-to-bottom richness, with caramelized onions, pork belly, and cheese, all gooey and falling apart, with no sense of contrast.
You can tell what’s missing in those dishes because you can find it elsewhere on the menu. My favorite dish was the fourth entrée, the exception I mentioned earlier, an Asian-inspired skin-on black cod in dashi broth. The fish flaked gently apart in a subtle and flavorful miso broth, but my favorite part was the wontons of minced fish. Inside was that last added element: Each ball of minced fish had a magical citrusy quality (from lemongrass), which elevated the whole dish and made it special.
Sadly a few nights later I ordered the dish again, and it emerged from the same kitchen with a severe identity crisis. Everything was different: no citrusy quality, an oily wonton, and barely any broth at all, just a thin sauce at the bottom of the bowl. I suspect that the chef was out this night, but a kitchen staff has to know what marks to hit on every dish, and this one clearly doesn’t—yet.
Many things are working at The View at Shires’ Garden. The service is solid, the view (from certain spots) is gorgeous, and the restaurant is a beautiful place to have a meal. Great restaurants, though, are always pushing—for more consistency, for that little extra tweak to process or garnish or ingredient. The talent is here; hopefully the push is still coming.
The View at Shires’ Garden, 309 Vine St., 10th Floor, downtown, (513) 407-7501