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Oscar’s replacement doesn’t hit its “upscale” target 


click to enlarge Seafood came out over-salted all night; it wasn’t just the oysters’ natural brine. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Seafood came out over-salted all night; it wasn’t just the oysters’ natural brine.

Oscar’s Tejon Street had a 16-year run before rebranding as Midtown Grill for a short stint, then closing. The Block Bar & Grill has picked up where it left off, and you can read more about that in my Jan. 22 website posting, in which the new owners said, “We aren’t trying to be a restaurant... we’re more of an upscale bar with a diverse menu.”

I set my expectations accordingly, hoping for bar food on a par with, say, The Bench, nearby. The word “upscale” got me thinking beyond the eats found in our dive-iest bars. But after drinking and dining at The Block (on Fat Tuesday, unintentionally), I can only say that word simply doesn’t apply to anything beyond the cool neon light accents and clean industrial/modern decor; maybe the attentive service too.

But that’s me reaching for nice things to say, because almost no part of the actual eating and drinking proved pleasant. Drinks started rough with the Sugar Glider, made with Sugar Island coconut rum, Aperol, lemon juice and sweet vermouth; and the Alegre, with Tres Agaves blanco, mango, lime and jalapeño shrub. The first smells of suntan lotion, lacking the expected bitter orange or lemon balance to the sweetness. By contrast, the Alegre tastes mostly of bitter lime juice and straight tequila, not balanced by any fruit flavor or shrub sweetness, with only a faint chile hint. We ask for more Aperol and shrub to be added, no help, then resort to mixing the two into a third glass at the table to see if we can make something drinkable. Takeaway: I shouldn’t be blowing bubbles in my drink as an adult, mixing spirits tableside, playing cocktail monkey fuckabout instead of enjoying a well-made drink. I write in my notes: “We’re just gonna suck it up and not enjoy these, like the drinks they aren’t.”

From the special Fat Tuesday menu (and partly to pay homage to Oscar’s Cajun past), we order boudin balls and New Orleans BBQ Shrimp. The boudin’s decent enough, fried crisp with a tacky crab-cake-like interior of minced, mildly seasoned sausage and visible bits of rice, served with a remoulade-esque dip that mostly tastes like mayo-ketchup. The shrimp aren’t the head-on Worcestershire-spiked stuff of legend from Mr. B’s Bistro in NOLA, but instead a half pound of sad baby shrimp in a “spicy beer and butter reduction” that’s so oversalted we can barely eat the shrimp or pieces of not-quality French bread we dip in. Instead of Creole seasoning, we taste an Italian mix, heavy on oregano and pointy with hard, dried rosemary bits. Had anyone actually tasted this in the kitchen, the dish shouldn’t have gone out.

Location Details The Block Bar & Grill
333 S. Tejon. St.
Colorado Springs, CO
11 a.m. to midnight, Sunday through Thursday; until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday

I can say the same for the signature Oysters Oscar: heavily battered and fried oysters on a mound of translucent iceberg lettuce topped with bacon, shrimp bits, spinach cream and grated Parmesan. Heavy salt again assaults our mouths to the degree that our cheeks still feel numb half an hour later and our lips feel swollen as we chug water. To be clear, this wasn’t the natural brine of oyster liquor hitting us, but a heavy hand of added salt. Between this and the shrimp, it’s the most egregious over-salting I think I’ve ever experienced in a restaurant (or, um, upscale bar.) 

click to enlarge Even under green chiles and Pepper Jack, we mostly taste frozen meat patty. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Even under green chiles and Pepper Jack, we mostly taste frozen meat patty.

We try to pull out of the tailspin with a late order of a burger and another cocktail that could just be an okay closer to a rough meal. From six options we go for the Hatch Burger, with diced green chiles, Pepper Jack and chile aioli. The kitchen does hit a medium rare, but the big dense bun is dry and the meat just tastes like a mass-market frozen patty, and that’s the enduring, dominant flavor; the chiles and cheese oddly mute, and the aioli sans spice and more of just a plain mayo. A side of truffle fries tastes only of Parmesan, both shredded and more heavily of the grated sort from the tall green Kraft cans of my youth. Too much cheap tang. 

We’re hoping for salvation from the 42nd Street cocktail, whose recipe differs greatly from those seen online, but whose Redemption Rye, Averna, hazelnut and bitters sounds quite dessert-drinkable. Yes, you’re sweet with the hazelnut, a bit overly bright, but you’re back to being decent after a string of failures, so we drink you, and feel bad when we tell everyone (including the chef and an owner and two inquiring servers) that everything’s fine when they ask with sincerity.

But I don’t give honest feedback in the field because I don’t want anything removed from the bill, or a lengthy heart-to-heart convo that amounts to menu consulting. Like most eaters/drinkers, I just want to go out and have a good time, imbibe well and feel the money’s well spent. I definitely don’t want to just endure a bad experience.

As I wrote in a recent, controversial review, this feels like backward progress for our food scene. Even if we’re aiming for humble bar food, it still needs to be good, complemented by well-made drinks. Decor and service won’t save the day, and we can go anywhere for a draft craft beer and big TVs. Something truly upscale hits all the right notes. If it hopes to achieve Oscar’s longevity, The Block needs to focus hard on fine-
tuning its flavors.

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