Just Warming Up
By Bill Gerdes
It starts with excitement. Laker fans were stoked when the team got Artest over the summer. Diners and wine aficionados were jazzed when news of 54 Degree’s opening came out, especially when we learned they would also be offering up tapas as well. Sevilla serves up above-average to fair tapas down the street, but the chance to nibble quality apps at the Inn added to my excitement, as well as others’. By the time I finally went almost everyone I knew had already checked out the “new” wine and tapas bar, with varying reviews.
It’s visually interesting and everyone is very nice. Artest can always be counted on to be aesthetically different; witness his multiple hair colorings throughout the year. And so far this season, Ron Ron has not punched anyone in the face, a genuine plus. Ditto for 54 Degree’s, the place features some seriously comfortable wicker chairs that focus around ample dining tables. The bar itself is frankly stunning, with a large aquamarine-blue faux-mosaic mural hanging over a darkish and elegant old-school bar. It may be one of the few bars left in America that does not have a television. And I must say our bartender was excellent.
Then it shows initial signs of disappointing you. Around December, Laker fans woke up to the fact that Artest can no longer, um, shoot the basketball.
Disappointment at 54 Degree’s sets in when you look at the menu. I expect a mark-up on wine, a substantial one at that, but the cheapest glass of red here is a $12 Rombauer 2007, tasty but budget-busting. Then there’s the tapas menu; it’s clearly misnamed, since not a single item betrays a whiff of Spanish origin. One item boasts of its “imported cheeses,” giving off a 1976 vibe.
It gets worse as the season wears on. Laker fans now write off any Artest shot as a miss. I was beginning to do the same with 54 Degree’s. Their version of seared Ahi is perhaps the worst I’ve come across in a restaurant. It is an unmanageable lump that resembles a pink egg roll and it is too thick to sear well. And much like the Laker starter, the fish appeared to be showing its age.
It rekindles a sense of optimism in the end. Artest has been playing better in the playoffs. The “tapas” improved as the night went on. The “imported” cheeses actually were, but they were also served up with a deliciously spicy array of olives. And the hot Jamaican shrimp, while slightly overcooked, are coated in a delicious jerk sauce, all spicy fire, which contrasts nicely with the sweet Hawaiian rice. 54 Degree’s left me with a sense of what could have been—it’s a great space that feels like it was put together out of a Wine Bars for Dummies textbook. They can do better.
54 Degree’s at Duane’s at The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa, 3649 Mission Inn Avenue Riverside, (951) 784-0300; www.missioninn.com. Mon-Thurs 4-11PM, Fri-Sat 4PM-midnight. AE, D, MC, V.