"THE UGLY American" was a best-selling book and 1963 movie starring Marlon Brando. Although a work of fiction, it foreshadowed the Vietnam War and came to define American foreign aid.
In Pennsport, The Ugly American is a 6-week-old restaurant owned by Kevin Kelly. The chef is David Gilberg from Loie Brasserie. Carla Gilberg (they are married) is the pastry chef.
According to Kelly, "Ugly American" is also a derogatory term that French nouvelle-cuisine chefs used to describe the New American cooking movement in the '80s.
I like that cheekiness and the vibe that the restaurant sends out. So American.
The restaurant is in its infancy and I really liked much of the experience, but there needs to be some restraint in the dishes. Too much is going on in over-the-top combinations. One of my tasters described it as going back to the period when American chefs started adding ingredients and fusions just because all those flavors were there.
It led to what some called "confusion cuisine."
So, while I love the fact that the bar menu has the classic Beef-on-Weck sandwich (Buffalo, N.Y.'s, answer to our cheesesteak) and that there are some delicious dishes to be had, there are - like American tourists - some real loud and boorish ones to be found.
The Roasted Oysters ($8) were disappointing. Although the oysters were plump and briny, the cream sauce was thin and flavorless.
I noticed, on a paper menu, the option of Fried Chesapeake Oysters with apple-celery root slaw and bacon dressing. Somehow that sounds more promising.
Endive Salad ($9) had some good components that blended well, but the texture of the braised endive wasn't appealing. I mistook them for leeks at first. I think raw endive would have been a better contrast to the sauteed apples, which were terrific as their sweetness contrasted with the bitter greens. Roasted cauliflower added crunch and a caramelized flavor.
Rich blue cheese blended the sweet and tart but, because this is a rich dish with lots going on, the portion should be smaller.
The Stuffed Poblano Pepper ($10) was truly ugly. Nothing worked here, neither the visual presentation nor the concept. The pepper should have been charred for some smoky flavor and the stuffing was something akin to frozen onions in cream sauce.
On the other hand, high marks to Venison Chili ($10), served with a wedge of green-chili spoon bread. The cranberry beans in the chili contrasted with the game, and the spoon bread was divine. My fork kept going back for more, even though the portion was too big.
All of the appetizer portions were too large. They'd be great for bar food but, when leading into an entree, the appetite was diminished rather than teased.
The entrees also saw a mixed response from my tasters.
The Red Snapper ($20) was characterized by a flabby texture to the meat. While the sauce was a nice blend of bacon, mussels and tomato, it couldn't make up for the fish.
The "Porterhouse" Pork ($21) - an amusing name the Pork Council gave to what it once called "the other white meat" - was a perfectly cooked chop.
The cheese grits as a side were stellar, as was the sauteed broccoli rabe.
A surprise hit were the Veggie Meatballs ($17). Artful presentation added to this dish and the touch of truffle oil made the mushroom "meat" balls come alive.
I was happy to get my Steak ($22) on. The cut was a belvedere, which Kelly described as a cross between a hanger steak and a strip steak. It was cooked exactly as ordered and was served with a compound blue cheese butter. The portion was generous and there was enough for a sandwich the next day.
On the sides, again, too much. The blend of greens and Brussels sprouts was a mix of many flavors. I wanted the clean, crisp flavors of the sprouts to carry on their own. The mashed potatoes were good, but were ever-so-slightly gummy in texture.
Desserts, too, were overdone combinations. The Cookie Plate with Root Beer Pudding ($7) was interesting, but the root beer was too intense for a large pudding.
The Dark Chocolate Mousse ($7) was something straight out of Willie Wonka's chocolate factory, with much too much marshmallow. That said, the marshmallow topping that was torched like meringue was a nice touch.
While the Apple Pie with Cheddar Cheese Ice Cream ($7) was an interesting twist on pie a la mode, the cheddar cheese ice cream was just too weird and detracted from a really well executed pie.
While it holds a lot of promise - bloggers note that there is draft beer on the way - The Ugly American needs more authentic, lean early Brando and less portly overwrought eccentricities of the '80s. *