I ate at a Chart House in St. Thomas years ago and didn't realize it was a chain. It just seemed like any other upscale restaurant on the island: touristy. But even at the newly reopened location in Newport, the ambiance is suggestive of cruise ships and resorts.
Spanning New England-, Caribbean- and Southern-influenced seafood dishes, as well as steaks, the menu sticks to things that have been mapped out by the culinary equivalent of pop culture. They've added a Seared Ahi appetizer ($9.99) and other trendy Asian accents like bok choy to the menu, but it still remains very much a shrimp cocktail kind of place.
I like the restaurant's architecture, a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired form that fits nicely into the curves of the riverbank. The dining room is designed so that every table has a view of the river through a massive wall of windows, and a $1 million makeover has given the interior a more contemporary look.
With the air-conditioning on full-blast on a recent weeknight, my boyfriend and I preferred the balcony. We were happy to have front-row seats as the sun dove into the shadowy skyline, but as the temperature dropped we wished some of that money they'd spent on new upholstery and framed aquatic prints could have gone to heat lamps.
Turning our attention to the wine list -- which includes interesting blends like Conundrum White ($54) in addition to grandma's beloved Beringer White Zinfandel ($20) -- our server "confided" in us that she was a "wino." However, she seemed more interested in steering us toward pricey bottles than being honest about the limits of her knowledge. Google later confirmed that Casablanca Valley is in Chile, not California as she informed us with seeming confidence.
After settling on a bottle of Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc ($31), appetizers proved to be the highlight of our meal. A Deviled Crab special ($11.99) was a flavorful mix of lump crabmeat in a spicy Cajun remoulade, smartly presented in open-face crab shells. And I'll buy the menu's claim that the New England Clam Chowder ($5.50) is "award winning." Served in a tiny cauldron, it was flavorful and creamy, thickened only by morsels of clam and diced potatoes.
From our server's script to the press releases, the Chart House seems very excited about their new salad bar ($4.75 with entrée). Another critic described it as "retro," but if that's the intention, someone might want to rethink the level of authenticity they're going for. Iceberg isn't my idea of healthy nostalgia. There are also green greens -- spinach, romaine and field -- but all looked like they'd been sitting out too long.
Most interested in the hand-tossed Caesar, my boyfriend was disappointed when he saw the limp remains in the bottom of the bowl. A few servers offered but never fulfilled their promise to replenish the bowl. Instead, he piled his plate with greens, cherry tomatoes, slivered carrots and radishes, beets, marinated artichoke hearts, hearts of palm and bleu cheese dressing.
Tiny piles of caviar and bacon bits rested dangerously close to one another on the periphery of his plate, and I couldn't resist the juvenile urge to scoop them up in a single spoonful. There are reasons salad bars went out of fashion in fine-dining establishments. Artichokes with bleu cheese dressing and caviar with bacon bits are a couple.
For entrées, we chose two of Chart House's most prized, one mildly disappointing and one just plain awful. The former was slow-roasted Prime Rib and Shrimp ($29.99). The skewer-grilled shrimp were juicy enough and the steak was tender, served with au jus and horseradish cream. It wasn't the most attractive marbling and cut of meat I've seen, but I must admit I don't eat a lot of prime rib.
The dinosaur of sides -- a gigantic baked potato -- took up half of the plate. I wanted to substitute asparagus, but they only offer it as a side dish for $5.99.
Macadamia Crusted Mahi Mahi ($25.99) was so overcooked it tasted meatier than our meat. Humdrum coconut-ginger rice and indiscernible mango coulis along with overly sweet, sloppily applied, Frangelico-spiked peanut sauce did nothing to rescue the fish.
After our entrées, eating the popular Hot Chocolate Lava Cake ($7.99) just felt like drowning our dissatisfaction in chocolate and ice cream.
My advice? Go to the Chart House for a cocktail, an appetizer and a sunset, but don't expect any culinary revelations. ©
Go: 405 Riverboat Row, Newport
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Plenty of seafood, but only salads for vegetarians who don't eat fish
Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible