Review: Parker's on Ponce
The Decatur steakhouse aims high but misses the mark
Let's start with the good news: If you are a steak fanatic, or even just someone who craves the meaty satisfaction of a huge hunk of cow every now and then, the porterhouse for two at Parker's on Ponce is the best deal you can shove in your maw. For $55, you get a 32-ounce porterhouse, cut off the gargantuan bone and sliced, as well as two sides. Is the sear exactly right? Is it the most perfectly aged, expertly handled cut of meat in town? No. But it's more than good enough — it's a fatty bloody steaky treat.
The surroundings in which it's presented are somewhat of a treat as well. Open since 2008, Parker's on Ponce aims to provide Decatur with neighborhood fine dining. The restaurant is owned by John-Thomas and Christopher Scott, brothers who came to the business as servers at Mick's, the building's previous occupant. When Mick's closed the brothers took over the space, feeling that Decatur needed an independently owned steakhouse. Three years later the restaurant seems to be doing a steady business.
The room is formal in a kind of generic way — white tablecloths, modernish art, twigs that poke up artfully in a forest-like configuration along a partition wall. Close inspection of those twigs (or even a seat beside the partition wall) reveals that they're bedecked in dust and even cobwebs. And that's indicative of the problems with Parker's in general — from a distance it looks like a refreshingly unpretentious, low-key date-night restaurant. On closer inspection, Parker's could do with a brush up.
Beyond the porterhouse, other steaks are also well-prepared and fulfill that meat craving. There are some decent appetizers: a Maryland-style crab cake with tomato rémoulade that I ate with gusto and forgot about the second it was gone; bacon-wrapped, blue cheese-stuffed dates with a sticky balsamic reduction that were almost farcical in their sweet fatty sticky glory. The menu states that local produce is used whenever possible, which is admirable. But much of the food here is undersalted, oversweetened and painfully outdated.
Outdated can be forgiven, even when it's a plate of fried green tomatoes with goat cheese and pesto. But these particular fried green tomatoes cannot be forgiven, being cut so thin as to lose their juicy green gush, instead acting only as a thin vehicle for cardboardy fried breading. One evening, craving something fresh and simple, I ordered the seared ahi tuna with sushi rice, pea shoots and arugula. I might have expected the tuna in huge cold tasteless slabs, as that's usually what "seared ahi tuna" gets you. What I didn't expect was the sushi rice rolled with nori and deep fried, providing the worst of both worlds — the fried part of crappy fried sushi rolls with nothing inside to even distract from how dumb it is to fry sushi rolls. I also didn't expect the pea shoots and arugula to be drenched in a sweet, viscous substance that the menu labeled "lychee sake vinaigrette." That ain't no vinaigrette. No sir.
A flatiron steak, the one steak entrée that comes from the regular entrée menu and is accompanied by pancetta mac and cheese and zucchini fries, was a mess of a plate, the steak tough and hard to eat, the mac and cheese kind of floury, the zucchini fries oddly sweet. A gut-bomb portion of shrimp and grits worked better — the andouille sausage/shrimp/red pepper stew-like swamp over the grits tasted like upscale stoner food.
Service tries for formality but falls down in the details. One evening a major spill happened at my table that no one ever noticed because, well, no one was paying attention to the state of our table. I get the feeling there's a lack of leadership on the floor — the staff is genuinely eager to please and seem to be trying their honest best to provide the kind of service they imagine to be formal. Freddie in particular was a gracious presence at my table one evening. But I'd rather see more casual service than the pretension of formality without any real understanding of fine-dining details.
I like the spirit of Parker's on Ponce. I like the live music in the bar and the neighborly vibe. I love the feel of the patio with its twinkling lights, right there in the middle of Decatur. But I think it should focus on what it's good at and drop everything else from the menu, from the service style, and from the bar. Focus on the steaks. Let go of the showy, badly executed '90s cuisine. Focus on the local produce. Let go of the trappings of deep frying and oversaucing.
Let the ingredients speak for themselves. That porterhouse sure does.