Carla Meyer

Dining review: Superior service at Lodi's Towne House can't make up for uncertainty in the kitchen

Last September, the venerable Wine & Roses hotel in Lodi decided to reposition its Towne House restaurant and scale things back a tad from a destination special-occasion restaurant to something that's, well, not so destination-y.

It has, indeed, succeeded – the cooking is not worth the 45-minute drive from Sacramento. It's also not much fun when you get there – do you know anyone under the age of 90 who likes Muzak versions of cheesy pop songs played on a piano?

Then there's the matter of the prices. If it's no longer a special- occasion restaurant, where does it get off asking prices bordering on outrageous?

Not counting prix fixe restaurants in the Bay Area and Napa Valley that have earned multiple Michelin stars, the Towne House is the most expensive restaurant we can remember.

With the exception of its excellent service staff, Towne House falls short of providing commensurate value for those high prices, including $14 for a bowl of mushroom soup, $38 for a pork chop, $42 for steak, $42 for sea bass and, yes, $42 for roasted rack of lamb.

Pencil in the $42 in gas you'll spend making the 92-minute round-trip in your Rolls-Royce from Sacramento and you're looking at a price tag that simply cannot be justified and execution from the kitchen that could just leave you fuming.

Nearly every dish we ordered during our visits to this historic and stately Lodi property best known as a site for weddings contained either missteps, halfhearted steps or, in the case of a newfangled Caesar salad with three kinds of raw beets marinated in three different citrus juices served with whole anchovies, a little shop of horrors.

Rarely have we seen a bigger gap between the quality of the service and the vision for and execution of the food. If the Firehouse Restaurant in Old Sacramento and Hawks in Granite Bay have the best service in the fine dining category, Towne House is not far behind. The greeting was friendly and polished. The servers knew the menu, could describe the cooking with precision, could improvise when we asked questions and were enthusiastic about recommending wines to go with the food (even if we found the idea of pairing a full-bodied zinfandel with a sweetish duck entrée more than a little jarring, if not revolting).

The ambience was stately, refined, and a bit stiff. The restaurant should not advertise its live music if it's going to be a piano player doing the kind of music that would make Lawrence Welk fans seem like hipsters.

Back to the Caesar salad for a moment. I'm searching through my dining memory bank of thousands of meals at hundreds of places great and ghastly to recall a parallel to this salad, something that was equally off-kilter, disjointed, unpleasant to look at and a pucker-up jolt to the senses. Can't do it.

It wasn't the worst dish I've ever eaten, but it was perhaps the worst idea for a dish and certainly a waste of innocent little fishies. What I most appreciated was the straight face our server maintained as she described it.

If a salad is meant to be a warm-up for the meal to come, this one worked as a palate awakener – all the charm of gargling with Listerine. The meal could only get better.

The pork chop was excellent, but this thick, juicy and tasty cut of meat was accompanied by vegetables that were exceptionally unimaginative. The restaurant touts its farm-to-table philosophy, but that doesn't mean creativity and originality are banished to the sidelines. These vegetables – cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and mashed sweet potatoes – were dull to the point of being dismal. And they were simply plunked down on the plate without a hint of artistry. As an overall dish, it was a failure.

My duck was not without its merits – precisely cooked medium-rare, tender and rich. But this dish was almost syrupy sweet, overbearing in its seasoning and odd in its accompaniments. Runner bean purée? Tasty but salty. Romanesco? Cool vegetable, but the kitchen did nothing to distinguish it. It wasn't cooked with skill or flair. It was heated up.

Too often, that's what we saw here. The whole idea with farm to table is that it's an approach to sourcing food, not cooking food. A chef is obligated to showcase vegetables in ways that express the essence of what they are without being ordinary or without, ahem, dousing shaved beets in OJ.

Our salmon was oddly realized, too. The thick piece of salmon was served with the skin, though it was overly crisp and crinkly on the outside and a little watery in the middle – that's the way it goes sometimes with frozen fish. The salmon sat atop nicely seasoned and tender braised greens. A decent dish until it came to the macadamia nuts. No, these nuts weren't crushed and used as a crust on the fish. They were simply sitting on the plate, a dozen or so nuts waiting to roll onto the floor if you attempted to eat them. You couldn't stab them with a fork. And if you tried to shovel them, they would tumble off. It was just so very weird.

Weirder still was the wild rice. We couldn't figure out if it was undercooked or uncooked. It was certainly inedible, unless you're into chewing on something with the texture of pencil lead.

The beef short ribs, braised in a zinfandel reduction for about four hours and served with a creamy white polenta and cipollini onions, mushrooms and shallots, was more successful for a midwinter dinner. The meat was beautifully tender. The onions had a little sear to them and were terrific. But the overall taste of this dish was rather ordinary. Its saving grace? It wasn't $42 – it was $36.

Our server described the crab cakes with such enthusiasm that we couldn't resist. They were breaded and pan-fried in extra- virgin olive oil, she told us. She left out "bland and cool in the center."

The desserts, all $9, were the best parts of our dining experiences here. Our favorites were the tiramisu with rich notes of espresso and the dark and delicious chocolate layer cake with cocoa nibs and crème Anglaise with rum.

Our visits here left us puzzled about this revamped restaurant. It doesn't want to be a special- occasion place anymore, but you really have to make an effort to get there. For now, the prices are too high and the cooking too unexceptional to make us pine for another 90-mile round trip any time soon.

Towne House Restaurant

2505 West Turner Road, Lodi

(209) 371-6160

Hours: Open for breakfast Monday-Friday 7-11 a.m., 8-11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday; for lunch Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and for brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner daily 5-9 p.m.

Beverage options: Full bar.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes.

Noise level: Quiet to moderate.

Overall ★ ★ 1/2 (out of four stars)

The superb service staff saves this rating from going lower. The cooking was inconsistent, off-kilter and sometimes just odd. Despite a few high points, nearly every dish contained cooking missteps.

Food ★ ★

The food here should be significantly better, given that the competition at this price point includes places likes Hawks, Mulvaney's, the Firehouse and Enotria, and it's significantly pricier than Ella and Biba. Towne House is not in the same league. The pork chop was excellent and the braised short ribs were good, but the vegetables were sometimes so unimaginative that their presentation on the plate seemed lethargic. We liked all of the desserts. The wine list is very good and nicely focused on the bustling Lodi wine region. Craft beer choices were OK, but why not include some excellent Sacramento-area options?

Ambience ★ ★

Pleasant, cozy, classy, country charm, but what's with the dated song stylings on the piano? It comes off as corny.

Value ★ 1/2

On Sept. 1, Wine & Roses announced it was rebranding its restaurant to become an everyday dining option. If this is such an option for you, you're either very wealthy or very foolish. Many of the main dishes are over $40 – just outrageous, given the quality of the food.