This is how an online dictionary defines the word “mediocre”: “Of only ordinary or moderate quality; neither good nor bad; barely adequate.”
That's exactly how I describe my recent dining experiences at McMenamins Old St. Francis School pub and restaurant in Bend.
I had three late-August meals there — a sit-down breakfast and dinner, plus a take-out lunch and dessert sampler — and invariably found the food inconsistent and very ordinary, and the service inexperienced.
That wasn't a whole lot different than the last time I reviewed the Central Oregon installment of the Portland-based hospitality group, back in January 2007. Then, I wrote: “It's not that the food and service are bad; it's just that they're not that good.”
More than 5 1/2 years later, not a lot has changed.
Breakfast with Bach
My dining companion and I were initially charmed when we arrived for breakfast. The strains of Johann Sebastian Bach wafted through the room. Our coffee was presented on saucers with cubes of sugar. Antique signs might have come from London or Paris. Live plants, hanging above an eclectic variety of tables and booths, were illuminated by subtle white, red and yellow lights.
But there was nothing subtle about my Southwest omelet. At least three eggs, probably four, were whipped into the omelet and wrapped around ground chorizo sausage, with pepper-jack cheese and diced green chiles of the sort widely available in Hispanic food aisles of grocery stores.
It was topped with sour cream, minced green onions and thick, blended red salsa that the menu gallantly described as “chipotle pico de gallo.”
The omelet was presented with the pub's tasty version of cottage potatoes — coarsely chopped and roasted red potatoes.
My companion returned her order of house-made corned-beef hash with poached eggs because she has a dietary aversion to green bell peppers, which were liberally sauteed into the meat-and-potato concoction. The server initially indicated that a new hash could be made without peppers, but soon returned from the kitchen with the news that the hash had been made ahead of time, and a pepper-free hash would not be forthcoming.
So my friend changed her order to classic eggs Benedict — poached eggs with Canadian bacon on an English muffin. For $12.75, she expected better. The Hollandaise sauce that can make or break a Benedict was very heavy with butter, and lacked even the subtle flavor of lemon.
We both liked the homemade bread, available as wheat or sourdough toast. Moist and yeasty, it was best when buttered and spread with huckleberry jam.
But our server initially forgot my toast when she delivered my omelet. She never apologized for the omission, but brought an order along with my companion's Benedict ... after initially being a little defensive about returning the corned-beef hash order.
Dinner with Dylan
Service was noticeably less competent at our evening meal, when the sounds of Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder had replaced the morning classical music.
Our server pounced on our table immediately upon our arrival to take our drink orders — on this evening, glasses of water. But more than five minutes passed before she returned to take our meal orders, and she still didn't have our water.
She did express regret for that oversight. But over the course of the dinner, she was woefully bad at checking back on our level of satisfaction with food, even when she was attending tables next to ours.
My companion this time made the best meal choice — a salmon Caesar salad. The romaine lettuce was fresh and crisp, and the Cajun-seasoned wild salmon, grilled just to moist and flaky, was excellent. It wasn't so good that I would come back to McMenamins just for this salad, but it was something I would feel comfortable ordering if I were to return.
I started with a cup of the soup du jour, a beef-barley blend with lots of barley and smaller amounts of beef, carrots, celery and onion. But the broth was far too salty for my taste; I pushed the bowl aside and looked for the server to bring some butter for my bread. To her credit, she did not charge me for the soup, but I never did get the butter, and the bowl remained on the table for the balance of the meal.
My main course was listed on the menu as smoked chicken pesto pasta. But pesto is a sauce made of fresh basil leaves with olive oil, garlic and pine nuts, and there were no such ingredients on the plate I was presented. The chicken was good — a tender sliced breast with a savory, smoky flavor — but it was merely served upon macaroni and cheese.
The macaroni, in this case, was penne pasta, as the menu had promised. But the “sun-dried tomato pesto” seemed to have been nothing more than tomatoes blended into a cheese sauce.
I would have complained to our server had we seen her again before she came to present the final bill.
Lunch and dessert
On other visits, between my friend and her teenage son, we were able to try McMenamins' pizza, sandwiches and desserts.
The Fireside Special pizza was a hit. Canadian bacon, pepperoni, fennel sausage, onions and artichoke hearts were served on a thin crust with just the right amount of cheese. I think it could only have been improved with a little more tomato paste.
The Baja chicken sandwich was very good. A mesquite-seasoned chicken breast, perfectly cooked, was topped with melted pepper-jack cheese and lots of sliced avocado upon a cilantro-jalapeño Kaiser roll spread with roasted red-pepper aioli. Again, I wouldn't make a special trip here for this sandwich, but it's something I could eat again.
Two other sandwiches were disappointing because the buns were dry, without any sort of spread. The hamburger with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and onions supposedly had a “secret sauce,” but it must have been very sparingly applied. The house-smoked pulled pork in a beer-based barbecue sauce was delicious, but again, the bun was untouched. And the coleslaw that is meant to be part of the order was overlooked.
From a dessert sampler plate, we gave thumbs-up to two choices but agreed that the third didn't cut it.
We liked both a mixed berry crumble, made with several Oregon berries, and a black-and-tan brownie. Both were presented with house-made vanilla ice cream.
But the Hogshead Whiskey bread pudding reminded us more of a cinnamon roll, despite the whiskey-spiked golden raisins. It was improved with a caramel-ale sauce and whipped cream, but still earned that same label: mediocre.
The BigBelly Burger Deli is now serving soups, salads and sandwiches — including cheesesteak and barbecued pulled pork — at its location just off Spring River Road in Sunriver. Everything, including breakfasts, is priced under $10. The new restaurant, which opened in late July, is fully licensed and open 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday to Friday. 56815 Venture Lane, Suite 501, Sunriver; www.bigbellyburger deli.com, 541-382-3354.
Al Edwards, the former firefighter who owns Big Al's Fire House Grill in Powell Butte, will host fire squads from throughout Central Oregon Saturday in a benefit event for the 9/11 Fallen Firefighters Scholarship Fund. A series of events, including a parade of fire trucks, a smoke-jumping demonstration and an axe-throwing contest, is scheduled from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. According to Edwards, the fund is intended “to enhance the education and future of children who want to become firefighters.” State Highway 126 at South Williams Road, Powell Butte; 541-548-1488.