The rooftop patio at Ignite! could be its best asset
A procession of lovely Fridays has made work very difficult when the weekend is just hours away. One recent Friday, as the temperatures crawled slowly and steadily toward the 80s, I gave up trying altogether, ditching my coffee-shop seat and computer in favor of a long lunch with a friend.
On this unseasonably warm day, I headed straight for the Ballpark neighborhood, one of the hottest restaurant neighborhoods in the city, where I had plenty of choices: Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria, Buenos Aires Pizzeria and Snooze had all staked out territory here years ago, with Trillium and Biker Jim's joining the lineup this past year. If I'd just wanted to drink my lunch, I could have added Star Bar or Whiskey Bar to my list of options, too.
Instead, I made a beeline for Ignite!, the restaurant that Concept Restaurants — owned by Rock Bottom founder Frank Day, R. Kevin Brown and J. Allen Adams — opened days before the end of 2011. The place bills itself as an "urban gastropub" with "fire-crafted food" and serves burgers, pizzas, pot pie made in a cast-iron pan and bacon jerky called "man candy." But the food wasn't the draw this day: I settled on Ignite! because it has a stunning rooftop patio.
I arrived ahead of my friend, so I let the hostess, who made a production over entering my first name into OpenTable despite the fact that there was no way this could be useful later, lead me to a patio table, which a manager curtly told her to wipe down first as we passed by. And then I stood awkwardly and watched her until she gestured for me to take a seat.
My server was at my table almost immediately, and she had good news. "Did you know that it's Free Beer Friday?" No, I didn't, but I liked the sound of that, especially when she explained that Free Beer Friday meant that one beer from the draft list was free, as long as I ordered an entree. She left me to peruse the list, which was not particularly interesting, though it did branch out beyond Coors Light and Stella (if you're a Coors Light or Stella drinker, you'll find those pouring from the taps, too). The wine roster, an almost completely domestic amalgamation of big brands, was even less interesting, and the cocktail list — which was using the word "martini" as a blanket term for anything served in an up glass — was actually kind of scary. So when my friend arrived, we quickly placed our orders for beer — free, remember? — as well as appetizers and entrees, then settled in to enjoy the sun. Our beers came first, though not exactly quickly, and then our entrees, with our appetizer order of calamari nowhere to be seen. I wasn't totally confident that it would ever come, because our server had also entered the wrong side for my friend's sandwich, bringing him sweet-potato fries — crinkle cut and uniform, as if they'd been dumped out of a Sysco bag — instead of the regular fries he'd requested. But then the server disappeared, and with no one to gripe to, we dug in.
I'd gone for the Ignite! pizza, which piled pepperoni, fennel-flecked sausage, sheets of soppressata, onions and housemade mozzarella atop sauce made from crushed San Marzano tomatoes. The pizza had been wood-fired until the crust was crisp along the edges and a bit soggy in the middle; I suspected that was due to carelessness rather than any allegiance to Napolitano pies, but overall the pie was decent, if overloaded. And it looked like a masterpiece next to my friend's sandwich.
He'd ordered the turkey BLT, which is an admittedly hard thing to gussy up, though it should also be tough to ruin. Ignite! had stacked thin sheets of dry turkey with a strip of crispy bacon, a couple of unripe tomato slices (vine-ripe, according to the menu) and a handful of lettuce about on par with Subway sandwich-bar greenery in a folded sheet of what the menu billed as flatbread but looked suspiciously like pizza crust. The smear of mayo on one side did nothing to revive this mess.
When our server finally reappeared, I asked her about the missing squid. She clapped her hands to her mouth and cried, "That's what I get for not writing things down!" I decided against pointing out that she'd flubbed my friend's fry order, too, instead telling her to forget the calamari and just bring the check.
I wanted to like Ignite!, because that rooftop patio is a special spot. But that first meal made it awfully tough.
Last week I gave Ignite! another chance, on a night when the patio was less of a draw. This time, the hostess led me to a high-top table in the boxy dining room, flanked on one side by brick and another by logs. Though our server this round was just as awkward as the woman who'd first waited on me, he was extremely charismatic — which helped atone for his tendency to forget halfway through a spiel exactly what it was that he was recommending.
While I waited for the stragglers in my group, I braved the drink list and was soon watching sadly as my server lit a shot of Chartreuse on fire while declaring that it was the first time he'd ever done that. With any luck, it will also be the last: He dumped the flaming alcohol into a birdbath-sized martini glass and presented me with the SaFIRE, a lime-gin concoction that tasted like six ounces of gin and a waste of Chartreuse. But I was ready to down all that gin to get over the disappointment of the burrata I'd ordered as a starter.
I usually love burrata: soft, supple and creamy, a shell of pure mozzarella enclosing a sweet, gooey center made of mozzarella and cream. And perhaps that description had applied to the Ignite! version at one point, but then it had been packed and refrigerated so that what arrived at the table was a cold, dense ball of cheese on top of some pathetic greens sided by a couple of triangles of herb-bombed pizza crust. I cut into the chilly surface and had to excavate an inch of mozz before I reached any of the soft cheese; it wasn't worth the effort. Pushing that plate aside, I asked for the "man candy," because I didn't think sweet and spicy bacon jerky could be anything other than awesome. And it came close: The strips of bacon — too floppy to really be considered jerky — had been coated in a sticky glaze that packed both sweetness and heat and left my mouth burning. But the starter's name had me a little hot and bothered, too: Not to get all buzz-kill feminist about it, but why call this man candy? I eat more bacon than most human beings I know, and last time I checked, I still had a woman's anatomy.
I should have quit with that politically incorrect but tasty treat. Because while the steak in our order of steak frites had been cooked to a perfect medium rare, it was a gristly cut. The frites were cold and a little mealy, completely joyless against the hunk of meat. And the housemade ketchup was another waste: watery, sweet and useless with the meat, atrocious with the fries. There's a reason that Heinz is really the only brand of ketchup on the market; the kitchen should have bought a few bottles and bought itself some time to concentrate on cooking the rest of the dish correctly.
The Ignite! burger was another well-executed medium rare, but the cloyingly sweet bacon-and-onion jam on top totally masked any tang infused into the beef by the grill — without adding any bacon taste. The side of macaroni and cheese was nothing more than noodles in a thick, gluey sauce that was dull until I doused it with Cholula.
The food at Ignite! left me so cold, I don't think even Free Beer Friday on the roof would be enough to lure me back. Great deck or no, there are too many other good options in this hot neighborhood to settle for anything lukewarm.
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