The newest addition to what’s left of once-vibrant downtown Hampton should be an easy success story. Conch & Bucket is a warmly lit, wood-lined restaurant with an inviting design, a strong wine focus, and an original menu. And given the fact the place is owned by local restaurateur Peter Pittman, there’s some serious experience behind the venture.
Yet, after several visits, I have to say that the place just doesn’t work for me.
I don’t say this lightly, either, as Pittman is the owner of Taphouse – one of my go-to places in town for a great meal. Based on a couple years’ worth of overwhelmingly positive dining experiences at Taphouse, I was more than a little excited when I heard Pittman was going to open a new restaurant. After some early press coverage, I envisioned a fine-dining alternative to the underwhelming Brent’s a couple doors down. So, it was more than a little of a let-down to realize that Conch & Bucket wasn’t all that. In fact, it occupies that style of restaurant that’s far too prevalent in Hampton Roads – one that tries to bridge casual and fine dining, without much of a vision on how to get there.
What’s ironic is that Taphouse does this so well. Taphouse is, first and foremost, a beer joint. The beers on tap and the daily specials are scrawled on blackboards. The waitstaff is casual and warm, lending the whole dining experience an easy, familiar feel. And the food is both creative and great, in an “I can’t believe I’m eating this here” kind of way. But it’s a beer joint, and that’s why getting the occasional crumpled, water-stained menu or one with ball-point pen annotations is OK.
Conch & Bucket is not Taphouse. Everything about the décor in Conch & Bucket says, “This place is nice.” It has kind of a 1940s world-traveler vibe to it, with vintage suitcases stacked by the front door. A large blackboard takes up most of the back wall, primarily featuring descriptions of various wines. The old-school dark-wood bar makes me imagine tweed-jacketed types sipping martinis and Manhattans carefully blended with house-made bitters. Conch & Bucket is the kind of place where it is decidedly not OK to bring crumpled, water-stained menus to the table.
Even the more-casual rear “deck” area is more pleasant than other nearby restaurants’ scant and ramshackle décor (ahem, Marker 20). It’s nicely decorated with sails, oars and other nautical items, although the scene was marred by a giant inflatable beer bottle on one trip.
Oh – you can smoke out on the deck, and people do. I felt like I was going to asphyxiate out there one night when several women chain smoked their way through their dinner. It may or may not bother you, but consider yourself warned.
My dinners at Conch & Bucket have followed a pretty consistent trajectory. The waitstaff is businesslike, yet unsure and often absent. I haven’t decided if they tend more towards being distracted, or if they’re simply oblivious to much of what’s going on around them. Either way, when waitresses nonchalantly drop off ink-jet produced paper menus that have been folded, smeared or otherwise mangled, it sets a poor tone for the evening.
My visions of hand-crafted Prohibition-era cocktails were quickly dashed when one waitress told me, no, there was no cocktail list, and then proceeded to list a number of house specials – several of which were riffs on Long Island Iced Teas. (It’s still 1991? Who knew?) Sangria is “on tap” (but why?) and served in pint glasses with a strong grape soda flavor and not a lot of real fruit. The house margarita is a veritable train wreck. Also served in a pint glass, it features heavy doses of some sort of pre-made mix and is topped off with club soda. To be fair, I haven’t tried ordering a martini or any standard cocktails, so it’s entirely possible they could pull those off. Not likely, but definitely possible.
But who really cares about cocktails, anyway, when the restaurant is clearly focused on wine? After all, I like wine. I like it a lot. Conch & Bucket’s wine list was 33 bottles strong, last I checked, and about half of those were in the 20-dollar range, with a couple in the teens. Price-wise, that’s not bad. Actually, I’d say it’s virtually unheard of these days.
But if you just want a glass, you should brace yourself for the maddening hunt-and-seek process of finding the wines offered by the glass. The by-the-glass wines are scattered around the blackboard and randomly sprinkled across the printed by-the-bottle list. Granted, the glasses are in the $4 to $5 range, but there really is no good reason for making them so hard to find.
Further confounding the wine-selection process is that whomever is writing up the wine descriptions is clearly not a wine drinker. For example, Conch & Bucket described a Terra Andina sauvignon blanc as “rich and lingering.”
Who describes a sauvignon blanc – any sauvignon blanc – as “rich and lingering?” Well, there’s this wine seller in Michigan (!), but that’s about it. I had this wine, and I’d describe it as “brisk,” “streamlined,” “crisp” or maybe even “startlingly fresh.” There’s nothing rich or lingering about it, or any sauvignon blanc, for that matter.
On the upside, the wine at Conch & Bucket is a fantastic value. There are very few restaurants where you can pick up a bottle of wine with dinner for these prices, and ordering wine by the bottle is somewhat of a lost art in the U.S. (yes, I’m guilty as charged).
So enough about the liquid offerings, already. What about the food?
Well, I’d say the food is a hit-and-miss affair, some being more hit than miss. Take, for example, the smoked trout appetizer. The fish – lightly smoked – is great. The bread that came with it, however, was so heavily salted-and-peppered that you would get huge unexpected salt hits every now and then. The fried green tomato tower, on the other hand, is a clear winner, with nicely fried thick slices of tomato sandwiching discs of herbed goat cheese. Raw oysters served with a honeycrisp apple mignonette made for a great appetizer, even if the apples lent the oysters an oddly stiff texture.
But then there’s the blackened tuna on white beans stewed with celery. The beans? Awesomely savory with great crunch from the celery. The tuna was well-cooked (that is, seared evenly around the edges), and it was a good quality piece of fish, but the spice rub was standard-issue “Cajun seasoning,” and the fish was most definitely not blackened. See, “blackening” fish involves heavily spiced fish, a roaring-hot cast-iron skillet, a healthy dose of butter and massive amounts of smoke. The whole idea behind blackening is that you blast the fish with so much heat that it cooks through in seconds without losing any of its moisture. The butter, meanwhile, turns the spices black. Hence the whole “blackened” thing. Searing tuna, however, means justly lightly cooking all the surfaces, leaving the interior raw and the seasoning kind of, well, the same color as it was in the jar. There’s probably a reason why Paul Prudhomme used thin snapper filets for this application. Just a guess.
The specials often hint at what the kitchen is capable of. A case in point is one evening’s offering of scallops topped with a radish slaw with an asparagus risotto and a red pepper coulis. Not only were the scallops nicely seared, but the risotto was nothing short of sublime. The crisp bits of fresh asparagus played beautifully against the creamy rice, and the coulis provided a giant visual pop to the Technicolor entrée.
Which is why I can’t figure out how the same kitchen is turning out a coriander “encrusted” tuna where the coriander isn’t so much of a crust as it is a dust. The fish was somehow cooked without achieving any sort of seared crust. I’m not sure if they cooked in on super-low heat or let it sit in the oven or what, but when it got to the table, the interior was very rare (good), yet somehow warm (not as good). The wasabi sauce was merely a sharp wasabi-water slurry drizzled over fish. It all tasted fine, but wasn’t anything special.
The biggest misstep, however, is the lobster mac and cheese. For one, orange cheddar is a
lousy choice for seafood, mainly because it’s so strong that it effectively eradicates any and all subtle ocean flavors. Second, serving this dish as an entrée in a ten-inch pie pan with chopped tomatoes strewn over the top makes it look more like a pizza than anything else. What you wind up is heavy and dull (although you do get a lot of it). I’m kind of in the camp that says seafood calls for lightly nutty white cheeses and wine, not a hugely buttery yellow cheese. But that’s just me.
Service never really seems to improve much from visit to visit. A dining companion and I were sat one evening and given a solitary menu with the waiter’s promise that he would be right back with a second menu. We never saw that guy again. On another visit, dirty appetizer dishes piled up on the table, sitting there through the entire meal and staring at me even as I signed the credit-card receipt. Most of the time, however, the waitstaff just seems nervous and distant.
I feel like I’m being too hard on Conch & Bucket, like I’m taking it out on them that they aren’t meeting my pre-conceived expectations. But I just can’t square the fact that two doors down, in a restaurant owned by the same guy, I’ve had things like in-house baked pretzel buns stuffed with spicy sausage and sauerkraut, crisped duck leg in a port reduction and mussels in homemade red curry – all served by a waitstaff that practically dotes on you … yet, at Conch & Bucket, I find myself staring forlornly at crab ravioli in too-thick pasta swimming in a dull sauce wondering if I’ll ever see the waitress again.
I guess at Taphouse, I expect something ordinary, and I’m always blown away. At Conch & Bucket, I expect better-than-average, and I leave disappointed. Mainly because I know they can do so much better.
Address: 13 East Queens Way, Hampton
Phone: (757) 864-0865
Website: Not even a Twitter account