Ron Eyester creates flavorful comfort in Morningside
It’s the dream of so many young chefs: a neighborhood sidewalk, a random weeknight — Wednesday perhaps — warm light spilling from large restaurant windows, the sound of people laughing. A full bar, the game playing silently on the TVs above. The dining room beyond bustling. A 20-minute wait for a table at 8:30 p.m.
Brick walls. Specials and cocktails written stylishly on chalkboards. An atmosphere that feels neighborly and personal.
But what to call such a restaurant? Something comforting but evocative of individuality. Something that speaks to the young chef’s other loves, possibly something that nods to his taste in music.
Such is the dream-turned-reality of Rosebud, owned by chef Ron Eyester and named after Jerry Garcia’s guitar.
Back when the space was Food 101 Morningside and Eyester was its chef but not its owner, the restaurant had many characteristics of a true neighborhood eatery. But there are some things you can’t manufacture, and it’s interesting to feel the palpable difference in tone that having a chef as owner imparts. Perhaps it's Eyester’s jovial presence in the dining room, stopping by tables and chatting with customers, pride radiating off him like so much Deadhead goodwill. Perhaps it’s the family-like camaraderie of the floor staff, who are as likely to be telling regulars about the parenting triumph of a baby’s first solid food (organic peas) as they are to be extolling one of Eyester’s dishes.
The neighborly tone is set in part by Eyester’s food, which aims to be comfort food with a pedigree. Even the physical menu, printed on brown paper and set up like a classic brasserie menu, manages to convey the flexibility of a true neighborhood bistro (cheese, shellfish, sides and weekly specials bump up against “main plates,” “beef,” and “some other stuff”) while maintaining the chef's all-American style. Eyester’s particular brand of comfort is heavy on rich, fatty ingredients, and occasionally borders on overkill. For the most part, though, the menu succeeds in delivering soul-soothing flavor with a side of homey goodness.
Eyester’s version of pimento cheese is creamy, addictive, and served with buttery crackers. For the chicken liver appetizer, toast is topped with rich chicken liver spread, then garnished with pickles, onions, bacon and drizzled with sweet balsamic reduction. The combination is smoky, meaty, puckery and perfect.
On a recent fall evening, nothing could have been more satisfying than the hunk of melting pot roast accompanied by a side of sweet glazed baby carrots. This is the kind of honest American food that too few home cooks still produce, and too few restaurateurs reproduce to fill the void.
Fried chicken, served over mashed potatoes with green beans, is curiously without its bone, but manages to stay moist and delicious. A hulking lamb shank falls off the bone, the meat juicy, musky and flavorful, and perfectly paired with a Mediterranean jumble of fingerling potatoes, olives, crunchy fennel and snappy green beans. The dish could do without the sun-dried tomatoes, which seemed out of place and unnecessary. But that’s one of Eyester’s downfalls — sometimes he doesn’t know when to pull back.
There’s also an edge to this food that feels a bit too stoner-riffic to me. On an entrée of trout with Brussels sprouts, bacon and mustard-whipped potatoes, Eyester fell back into a pitfall I encountered a lot with him early in his tenure at Food 101 — overwhelming sweetness that had no place on the plate. And as much as I love that gooey pimento cheese, and many of these dishes individually, the fried-cheesy-animal fatty nature of much of Eyester's food becomes a lot to handle over the course of an entire meal. Fries cooked in clarified bacon grease, crab fondue with potato chips, tempura eggplant with crumbled goat cheese — all of these dishes taste good, but would be easier to enjoy one after the other if they were a touch lighter. On the Monday night brunch menu, a peanut butter and bacon patty melt had me wondering just how this menu was conceived. Dude … peanut butter … bacon … mmm.
But what we lose in healthfulness we gain in hospitality and goodwill. Rosebud is a restaurant that aims to feed its community, both figuratively and literally. On these colder nights, and in this difficult time for restaurants, it’s nice to see a place that’s bustling and full of warmth. Hooray for dreams turned into realities.