One of the first things I look for on a menu are the oddballs, the strange dishes that show what makes the chef tick, signs of the particular journey that brought them to this point in their careers: strange ingredients, unusual flavors and preparations, mysterious passions—anything that seems to stand out.
At Clyborne, I searched the menu in vain for an oddball. What was available, from top to bottom, were slightly altered versions of dishes I had seen many times before. Steak frites. Fried chicken. Tomato basil flatbread. From the decor to the name (which seems to have no special meaning) to the food itself, dining at Clyborne is the culinary equivalent of walking through a furnished model home. It’s calculated to be appealing to as many people as possible, with no particular spark or identity.
Although there is only one S.W. Clyborne Provision & Spirits, and the executive chef is Mark Bodenstein, formerly of Piccolo Casa and Via Vite, the restaurant mainly resembles the chain restaurants that dot the surrounding landscape in Mason. Something about it has the same restaurant-by-committee feel, with dishes chosen purely in terms of marketplace appeal, and even furniture that looks like a page out of a catalog.
There is, of course, a place for straightforward, crowd-pleasing fare, and none of these issues of identity would be significant if the food were really good. At Clyborne, though, almost every dish shows some sign of carelessness. The fall harvest chicken flatbread—which has an otherwise tasty topping of butternut squash, shredded chicken, and garlic ricotta—comes out underdone and with an over-floured bottom, so you get a grainy coating on your tongue with each bite. A spinach and apple salad with candied nuts is drenched in syrupy dressing with mouth-dominating hunks of blue cheese. Later in the meal, the maple-bourbon glaze on the pork chop reaches a kid-with-pancakes level of sweetness, and comes next to an equally saccharine sweet potato mash.
The dishes that are done well—and there are several—point to what Clyborne might be able to accomplish if the kitchen starts operating at a higher level. The butternut squash and sage carbonara, for example, even with its familiar flavor profile, is lovely, with fresh sage, nicely made pappardelle, and a lemony tang that enlivens the sauce of runny egg. The twin filet mignon was even better, and is probably the best thing on the menu. The potatoes are made complex and aromatic with the addition of mashed celeriac (an old but good trick), the red wine demi-glace has nice balance, and matchsticks of radish plus fresh parsley atop the filet add brightness and crunch.
Mainly, though, the food at Clyborne, from appetizer to dessert, is marked by excess. When you want to please very badly, and you don’t trust the idea behind the dish, you start piling on the richness: bacon is put anywhere it could possibly fit (for example, on all five available salads). Cheddar scallion biscuits come topped with a chunk of sweet honey butter, soon pooling around them. And when it comes to cheese—whether in the ravioli or on a salad—the thought seems to be that if some is good, then double would be even better. The cocktails we tried, too, were so sugary that the sweetness drowned out every other dimension of flavor. The only place I appreciated the excess was in the generous wine pours. Otherwise, too many of the offerings simply lacked any sense of proportion.
At both of my meals at Clyborne, I kept wondering: Who at this restaurant is focused on making sure that diners have a quality experience? Many of the problems weren’t even with execution; they were much more basic. Doughnut holes came with a chocolate sauce that wouldn’t actually stick to them, because they were too thickly dusted with cinnamon sugar (the sugar just falls off into the sauce). Did anyone try this dish before it went on the menu?
Service is friendly and fairly brisk, but with a similar set of issues. During happy hour, the server wasn’t sure which varieties of wine were available at the discounted rate (she did, in her defense, eventually find out). Dirty plates—some of which are quite lovely Victorian-looking china—aren’t replaced for several courses. Steak knives, twice, come shoved under piles of mashed potatoes, something I have never had happen at a restaurant before, which means the diner has to wipe them clean before using them to cut the meat. Who is looking out for things like this at Clyborne? At the moment, it seems that no one is.
This lack of investment, a missing sense of shared responsibility for the success of the enterprise, is what can happen when there is little individual vision behind a menu. When a restaurant isn’t particularly passionate about what it is making, but instead just guessing at what people might be willing to spend money on, standards inevitably slip. Without a very specific mark that someone is aiming for (and insisting on), the other people working in an establishment, from kitchen staff to servers, don’t pay attention in the same way. Things start to seem good enough even if they aren’t exactly right.
Hopefully the issues I have mentioned above can change. There are good dishes to be had at Clyborne, and with a higher level of attention, there could be a lot more of them. In the meantime, though, if you want to be delighted and nourished instead of simply fed, there are too many other restaurants in our city, operating at a very similar price point, where you will find a level of care and creativity that Clyborne does not reach.
5948 Snider Rd., Suite B, Mason, (513) 204-7922, clybornes.com