Chow, Baby gets that we’re in Fort Worth, Texas. But it is still mystified as to why so many restaurants around town are doing upscale comfort food. That’s like culinary softball. It’s practically the same menu over and over. Recently, two friends, one of whom is a cookbook author, the other a gourmand and writer, met at one of the nicest hotels in town, looking for non-steak. As it turns out, we should have gone to Montgomery Street Café and paid a third of the price.
I wasn’t surprised that the Cast Iron Restaurant in the Omni Hotel (1300 Houston St., FW) served upscale comfort cuisine. It is, after all, a hotel restaurant and should be emblematic of the type of food an out-of-town visitor could expect to find in our fair burg. But what I didn’t expect was it to be so bland and poorly executed. The hotel houses several industrial kitchens and a small army of talented chefs. I’ve eaten there on a couple of holidays and was in awe of both the variety and execution of its massive buffet.
On a recent lunch visit, the lobby was crawling with folks who had just come from the convention center across the street, though the dining room wasn’t that busy. The décor has a homey elegance, with colorful striped patterns on the banquettes and heavy silver-colored chargers on the table.
Our server seemed rushed, despite the emptiness of the dining room. That being said, the first two appetizers came out quickly. The fried green tomatoes ($8) with goat cheese and olive oil were like battered paperweights. The sliced tomatoes, served in a cast iron skillet, were hard as rocks, and the batter slipped off them, which sometimes happens when it is too hot. These tomatoes, however, were room temperature and tasted of nothing. The seafood soup ($5) turned out to be the highlight of the meal. The delicious broth had a perfect herb-laden aftertaste and didn’t overpower the chunks of fresh white fish.
We also ordered queso fundido ($8), allegedly a spicy blend of asadero cheese, onions, tomatoes, and roasted poblano peppers (also served in an iron skillet). When they eventually arrived, the chips were so stale I could have killed a vampire with one, and the cheese had already hardened. I could have forgiven both of those things if the dish weren’t so characterless. The consistency made the cheese almost inedible, and the lack of flavor didn’t exactly inspire us to exert much effort getting the cheese onto a chip. At least that meant we didn’t care as much when the entrées arrived too quickly. It just meant every square inch of the table was taken up with various dishes served in small cast-iron dishes. They were cute, but that only gets you so far.
The entrées didn’t do anything to turn the tide of boredom. The “BBQ pulled pork Frito pie with redneck cheddar” ($14) sounded like fun and honestly wasn’t terrible. The rub on the pork was a little sweet for my taste, but the globs of meat and cheddar piled on corn chips were a sight to behold. The portion was enormous.
Beyond that, things went quickly downhill. The menu claimed that the chicken and dumplings ($18) would be almost good as Grandma’s — true only if your granny doesn’t own a spice rack or know how to use corn starch. The dish tasted like air, and had the jello-y consistency of demiglace. The pastry crust on the vegetarian pot pie ($15) — actually a biscuit topper rather than a wrap-around crust — was flaky and wonderful, but what lay underneath was entirely forgettable. In fact, you could have combined all the spice and fire in the queso, the tomatoes, the pot pie, and the dumplings, and it wouldn’t have added up to the zing of one decent street taco.
Given the caliber of the food I’ve had at the Omni on previous visits, there’s no excuse for what was served that day. Since the Cast Iron did have some street cred with me before then, I’d like to think it was just an off day. I’ll be back, but I may consider bringing my own spices.
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