AT FIRST GLANCE you might underestimate Wolensky's. It sounds like one in a chain of pubs, and it looks so slickly handsome that you might expect the cooking to take second place to the decorating.
But just as the menu is full of homey surprises -- "Buffalo style" chicken wings and double-fried french fries, Mom's Chicken Salad and a Blue Plate Special of "meatloaf, lumpy mashed potatoes, gravy and canned peas" -- the kitchen demonstrates unusual quality in some of the most predictable oods.
An example: Texas chili. The only reason I wouldn't declare it the best in town is that I haven't tasted every one in town. This has the juiciest chunks of meat and a flavor with lots of punch and just enough hotness and none of the sweetness that mars many a chili. It is also served with its beans -- freshly cooked beans with some bite to them -- on the side. Other dishes you might pass up as ordinary are also something special. French fries are made as they should be, with fresh potatoes fried twice, at two different temperatures for tenderness and crispness. And if you are not a traditionalist, you could equally enjoy french fried sweet potatoes, crisp and greaseless, served with raspberry vinegar for dunking. Those are listed as appetizers, along with Buffalo chicken wings, somewhat greasy but outstandingly juicy and crusty and slightly fiery. There are nicely executed deep-fried brie fritters, guacamole served with bagel chips, spiced shrimp, a zingy kielbasa skewered with peppers and onions and a mild but fresh and shrimp-and-sausage-packed gumbo among the appetizers.
Main dishes cover the range from burgers to sandwiches to salads to about a dozen entrees such as grilled chicken, steak, lamb chops, crab cakes, fettuccine with grilled vegetables or smoked salmon, and daily fish specials. They also cover the range from nearly inedible to outstanding -- the latter including a gigantic juicy hamburger on a good kaiser roll with really ripe tomato and bermuda onion; tender smoky barbecued brisket in a very good pungent sauce; the ideal club sandwich with lots of freshly cooked marinated chicken, excellent bacon, ripe tomato and crisp toast. Even the iced coffee has been remarkably good, strong enough to smell it as it was delivered to the table.
If all that has you looking for your car keys, read a few cautions before you leave for Wolensky's. This is a kitchen with a split personality. The mushrom soup one day was thick, gummy and lumpy, with an undertone of raw mushroom and not much taste at all. Mom's Chicken Salad was from somebody else's mom; mine wouldn't salt it so heavily or serve it on such flabby rye bread, and she'd flavor it with more than an overdose of mayonnaise. One day's special of grouper with cajun spices -- yes, the cajun rage is well entrenched at Wolensky's -- was utterly dreadful, the fish so dry and tough it was nearly impossible to cut with ordinary table utensils, and the spicing virtually absent. But the real pity was the crab cakes. They were lightly handled, lightly dressed and lightly breaded, constructed from big lumps of crab and of stellar quality. But their flavor was alarmingly sour and bitter; I could only guess they had been kept too long. Other seafoods have been impeccably fresh, from the near-raw scallops and the shrimp in the small but attractive seafood salad to the shrimp and scallop kebab (though too smoky, perhaps from a sooty grill).
As for desserts, most of them have been purchased rather than made by Wolensky's on my visits. They were good ones in their categories, from the cinnamony and tart apple (with a crust that was the flavor and texture of cardboard, however) to the supersweet nutty chocolate chip Tuxedo Pie. There are also Haagen-Dazs milkshakes, thicker in flavor than in texture, though.
Wolensky's has nice touches. The potato chips are fine Pennsylvania Dutch ones; the vegetables are ripe, fresh and carefully cooked; the wine list is short but intelligently selected and very reasonably priced. Where else can you find a list of high-quality California wines all under $16 except the champagnes? The drinks are also interesting inventions, though several of them have been cloyingly sweet.
And all this is served in the modern lushness of deep raspberry-colored walls that change to concord grape or burgundy depending on the light. They are backdrops for nostalgia in the form of photos and posters. And the tables are handsome dark polished wood. You can sit upstairs at the bar or downstairs in the warren of dining rooms, inside or "outside" in the courtyard of the little shopping mall. In any case, you will be served by staff so personable, well rehearsed and energetic that you might as well be a talent scout.
Wolensky's has opened to great advantage in its location, great delight in its decoration, and great imagination and intuition in its menu. Its flaws -- some truly dreadful dishes -- are inexcusable. But its attractions are strong enough to overcome a few of those, as long as they are only growing pains.