"Ashley’s takes an independent stab at the Northside dining scene
Negotiating all the hairpin curves and traffic circles in the sprawling shopping complexes of Carmel and Westfield, you don’t expect to come upon many stylish, locally-owned eateries. Especially not one with such ambitions as Ashley’s Steak and Seafood on 146th Street. This is the province of the franchise. Just don’t get confused by Ashley Furniture on nearby Greyhound Pass. They don’t have any seared duck or cornmeal-crusted halibut, though you might get some ideas for redecorating your dining room.
Redecorated dining rooms are what I had in my mind when I walked into Ashley’s — the restaurant, not the home décor center — which has recently taken over the old home of erstwhile Italian restaurant La Trattoria Regioni. Gone are murals of canals and gondolas, replaced by gold and copper hues, art glass sconce lighting and whimsical metal wall hangings. The multilevel dining room soars into an open ductwork ceiling partially concealed by suspended tiles. While a lot of exacting attention has gone into the makeover, the most fashion forward elements clash a bit with some dated fixtures. A container of silk ivy on the ledge above our table still had a shock of glitter-dusted faux poinsettias.
The menu is similarly dressed, with ubiquitous classics like chicken alfredo and pasta primavera accessorized with more daring fare: Tabasco-lime shrimp and green-chile pork con queso. A list of “crowd pleasers” comes with the epigraph “For those who like to be able to pronounce what they are eating.” Lest your tongue trip over such tricky verbiage as “bacon-wrapped filet” or “shrimp scampi.”
While the heart of the offerings lies in surf and turf, priced well below many similar purveyors in the neighborhood, the most interesting dishes reside in the menu’s margins. An appetizer of herb-dusted duck ($11.99) contained several tender and succulent medallions of breast meat, delicious despite a heavy drenching in a cream sauce of pureed white corn and poblano chiles. A sprinkling of pomegranate seeds was an interesting if slightly discordant touch. Accompanying greens were ragged and wilted, all too likely from a bagged mix.
A warm loaf of homemade bread with two butters — herb-garlic and honey — made for a nice touch many places tend to dispense with these days. A variety of homemade salad dressings such as tomato-buttermilk and cucumber Ranch also showed the restaurant’s attention to detail. But they were largely lost on more limp, insipid greens loaded with too much iceberg. A Caesar salad contained several of the hard outer veins of romaine.
Service, which I heard was superb, often had us scratching our heads. Our otherwise friendly and helpful waitress seemed confused at times, unable to recognize the name of a wine until we held up the list and let her stare at it for nearly a minute. But the French pinot noir we’d chosen from a list of mostly grocery store vintages turned up as the house pinot on the bill, leaving us to wonder just what we had imbibed during the meal.
Entrées were largely successful, though not without their quirks. A New York Strip ($19.99) was quite juicy and prepared as ordered, and a salt-crusted baked potato made a fine traditional side. “Whiskeyfied” mushrooms lacked much alcohol flavor and, while they may have been fresh, had a canned consistency and texture to them. A blue-corn crusted halibut steak ($21.99) was, indeed, a meaty filet, though it wore only a gossamer crust and a tropical fruit salsa was more a thin, spicy-sweet sauce. Promised black beans became rice flecked with a few beans. Still, the well-cooked fish packed plenty of flavor.
Not until dessert did we get a dish truly excellent and elegant in its presentation. A muffin-shaped bread pudding ($6.99) made with banana bread with a crunchy sugar topping had a definite boozy kick with several luscious and artful sauces. A scoop of utterly smooth vanilla ice cream had us swooning. Curls of white chocolate that the menu had described were missing, but we hardly needed them. Our drive all those blocks north, past so many national chains, had been vindicated.
Ashley’s Steak and Seafood
2550 E. 146th St.
Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday -Saturday: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sunday: 11-9 p.m.
Food: Three stars
Atmosphere: Three and a half stars
Service: Three stars