A reliable guideline for dining out: the bigger the space, the less special the meal. Significant real estate can translate to more effort going into upkeep than cooking, and servers spread too thin. Intimacy, so vital to the dining experience, can get lost.
There are exceptions, such as luxury hotel holiday buffets, loaded with seafood on ice, that draw crowds so large that seating spills from dining room to ballroom to Conference Room 3C, with staffing to match. Or those dim-sum restaurants that are so big the annexes have alcoves, yet the food’s always fresh and the service efficient.
Roseville’s ASR Restaurant & Lounge, which measures 11,000 square feet when counting a patio outfitted with cabanas and a VIP section, unfortunately leans more rule than exception. Though admirably thorough – open every day, the restaurant serves lunch, dinner and late-night bites – it falters at the detail level, on such key matters as flavor combinations and consistent service.
ASR stays open until midnight some nights, and until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, when it offers bottle service and a DJ. The latest I stayed was 9:30 p.m. Because the later I was there, the less satisfying the meals were. A Thursday lunch was fine-to-good, a 5 p.m. Friday dinner wobbled and a 7:30 p.m. dinner the following Wednesday bombed. The Wednesday meal henceforth will be known as the doomed dinner.
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ASR impresses upon entry, its spacious first-floor dining area, dominated by a rectangular bar, affording a view of lounge seating upstairs. Restaurateur Harwinder Bisla, who once owned Bisla’s (now Fahrenheit 250) in Sacramento, spent $3 million to buy and renovate this long-empty building, once home to a Mexican restaurant, on North Sunrise. Bisla opened ASR, which combines the first initials of his children’s names, last August.
Stylish light fixtures and leather chairs in semi-private (complete with curtains that can be drawn) lounge areas upstairs show Bisla’s investment. Although the restaurant’s brown/tan color scheme leans toward sterile, ASR’s lively crowd compensates for that.
People were having fun all around us on our evening visits. Happy-hour patrons whooped it up at the bar the first night. On the night of the doomed dinner, a buoyant group of 75 people, most of whom looked like professionals in their 30s, spent happy hour upstairs before moving the party to the patio.
The doomed-dinner evening started out well, with our own quick visit to the patio, where singer Ryan Hernandez, accompanied by a fellow guitarist, performed mellow tunes in the corner. Hernandez has a good voice, and his performance enhanced the already pleasant feel of the evening’s Delta breeze. For a moment, one could forget one was in a shopping center across from the Roseville Automall. It felt more like Palm Springs or Phoenix, or that nice pool area at Thunder Valley Casino Resort.
In an attempt to avoid too much noise, we sat inside for dinner. Bad move – the inside part, and the dinner part. We noticed the people on the patio, the smiling ones, were sticking to drinks and appetizers. This might be the wise plan, at least if the starter is the buttermilk-fried fritto misto. This appetizer includes fried lemon slices (a surprisingly soothing merging of sour and salt) along with calamari and bell peppers. It was the best thing I tasted at ASR.
But ASR promotes itself as restaurant first, lounge second. So we dined, on an entree of bland lentil cakes accompanied by an incongruous, savory tomato sauce. A yogurt sauce might have suited the dish better, but it’s hard to say. The lentil cakes summoned only enough flavor to clash with the tomato sauce before calling it a night.
The mushroom ravioli was gummy and overly thick. The truffle Parmesan French fries, though fresh-tasting and full of flavor, were not sufficiently crispy. Together, the lentil cakes, ravioli and fries affirmed our decision not to be vegetarians, or at least not vegetarians at ASR.
My previous dinner at ASR, which entailed a too-fishy-tasting bourbon miso salmon entree, had convinced me not to be a pescatarian there, either.
With meals at ASR, it’s go carnivore or stay home. The fried chicken – actually Cornish game hen – in the chicken-and-waffles dinner entree is wonderfully crunchy, and ASR executive chef Q. Bennett also shows skill with red-meat dishes.
The Mongolian beef entree and baby-back rib special I tried at lunch both held tender meat, and the petite filet mignon almost rescued the doomed dinner.
Cooked to a perfect medium rare, the buttery Niman Ranch filet came with Gorgonzola mashed potatoes that were pungent in the best way. The meat and potatoes were so good I forgave the tired, tepid onion rings served with the filet.
Things were looking up, until dessert. That course featured an apple brioche pudding lacking any of the custardlike texture one associates with bread puddings. The strawberry shortcake dessert featured a smattering of nearly tasteless strawberry slices and a cake evocative of the ones the come in packs of four at the grocery store.
I had hoped for better desserts after being disappointed, during a previous visit, by a coconut semi-freddo that was not semi-cold, as its Italian name insists, but fully freddo. Though its near-solid state was not a kiss of death – once thawed a bit, it was the tastiest dessert we tried – it was inconvenient.
Service varied from visit to visit. At lunch, when the place was lightly populated, it seemed like the whole staff, including the friendly Bennett, visited our table. But the next evening, when there were guests upstairs and on the patio as well as in the dining room/bar area, it took several minutes after we had been seated for anyone on the wait staff to look our way. Our server later neglected to deliver a dish we had ordered, but thankfully did not charge us for it, either.
Our server during the doomed dinner was personable and a total pro. But she kept asking probing questions we were reluctant to answer. Questions like: “How is everything?”
Everything food-wise might change soon at ASR. General manager Shane White said he and chef Bennett, who have worked at ASR since it opened but took charge in January after the original chef left, crafted a menu for the transition period that would not “shock” customers who already were regulars. That menu is not particularly seasonally driven. But White said that in the next few weeks, ASR plans to introduce a menu that’s “a lot more local.”
This shift could be a key to ASR, which already has enthusiastic patrons and some good dishes, truly being able to fill a big room.
ASR Restaurant & Lounge
390 N. Sunrise Ave., Roseville, asrrestaurantlounge.com
- Hours: Opens at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 11 a.m. Monday-Friday. Closes at 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. Closing times are open-ended on other nights, but can go to midnight.
- Beverage options: Extensive wine list, with several Napa wines; draft beers and cider. Vodka-, gin- and whiskey-based house cocktails. Bottle service runs from $100 for Luc Belaire Champagne to $695 for Don Julio Real tequila.
- Vegetarian friendly: Yes
- Gluten-free options: Yes
- Noise level: Moderate
- Ambiance: The place is impressive in size, and in the stylish lighting fixtures and leather chairs, you can see some of Harwinder Bisla’s $3 million investment in the restaurant/lounge. A brown/tan color scheme is a bit sterile, however.
It’s a nice place, but the food often disappoints.
Chef Q. Bennett does well with dishes involving red meat, and the fritto misto appetizer and chicken-and-waffles entree also stood out. Other dishes were letdowns, including a bland lentil-cakes entree and a too-fishy bourbon miso salmon.
The staff lavished attention on us at lunch, when there were few customers. Service was less attentive on our second visit, at dinner, when the restaurant was busier. The server during our third ASR meal, also for dinner, was professional and highly personable, and a bright spot within a disappointing experience.
Prices are too high for the gummy mushroom ravioli ($19), bland lentil cakes ($16) and too-fishy-tasting bourbon miso salmon ($22).