Rogue Kitchen & Wetbar feels about as desperate as John McCain's pick for vice-presidential running mate.
The "rogue" concept behind this new restaurant - asking patrons to pay what they think their food is worth - will certainly attract attention. You betcha!
But what happens when customers tire of the gimmick and realize that much of the food being served here isn't worth the effort it takes to fill out all the refund forms?
It's awfully sad to see this formerly grand room slide into a novelty "wet bar." (What does that even mean? The restaurant boasts a sink and running water? The name makes as much sense as a garbled Sarah Palin sound bite.)
Situated in Vancouver's historic Waterfront Station, the venue launched three years ago as the TransContinental Heritage Restaurant and Railway Lounge. Despite rave reviews (including one written by me), the high-end restaurant with its soaring arched windows and pan-Canadian menu never took off.
Less than a year later, owner Eli Gershkovitch rebranded it as TransContinental Steamworks, an offshoot of his original Steamworks Brewing Co., located directly across the parking lot about 50 metres away.
Guess the downscaled pub didn't work either. So now it's gone rogue.
The pay-what-you-think-it's-worth policy isn't entirely original. (Terra Bite Lounge, a Seattle-area coffee shop tried it for two years, starting in 2007.)
Nor is it as anarchistic as it sounds. As stated on the restaurant's website, there are ground rules:
- All food menu items are subject to the policy, while liquor is not.
- Servers should still be tipped on overall quality, service and atmosphere.
- It's not pay-what-you-want. It's a "social contract" that you pay what you honestly feel is fair market value. (Suggested prices are listed on the menu.)
- If patrons pay more than the menu price, the difference will be donated to charity (the Nehemiah Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports marginal or "underdog" artists in Vancouver).
None of this is explained when we arrive at the restaurant. The hostess, promising to seat us at the "best table possible," leads us to an enclosed private room lined with narrow rows of tables. It feels like a railway dining car, though I don't think that was the intention.
A waitress introduces herself as she leans into the server station - a bright red, stand-up tool box - and almost knocks me in the shoulder as she pulls out a cutlery tray.
Considering that the restaurant is less than half full, I'm not sure why the hostess sat us at what is very possibly the least comfortable table in the house. At my insistence, she moves us to a more spacious table in the high-ceiling front room that feels less claustrophobic.
Mr. Gershkovitch apparently spent hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating the interior design. He removed the swanky round booths, installed massive chandeliers and has hung lots of sheer drapery over the picture windows.
The heavily padded, carpeted dining room doesn't look nearly as "hip" and "funky" as the graffiti-plastered website suggests. In fact, the only graffiti I can see is displayed on a slide show playing above the bar.
A second waitress presents us with menus that make no mention of the pay-what-you-think-it's-worth policy. She doesn't say a word about it either.
The kitchen, which appears to be afflicted with a multiple personality disorder, offers everything from mini corn dogs and pizza to steak and Korean short ribs.
The prices seem fair at first glance. But honestly, you couldn't pay me enough to order Sticky Caramel Chicken, which is described as "battered chicken tenders smothered in sweet and spicy caramel sauce" ($14.99, with sushi rice and Asian veg). It sounds disgusting.
We start with sushi bombs, six balls of rice dotted with dabs of sriracha. Each is pierced with a plastic tube filled with wasabi soy sauce that you can either inject into the rice or your mouth.
The suggested price is $9.99. I think the dish is worth $6.99 because the bombs are quite thick. They're all rice. You can't even taste the tiny morsels of tempura-battered prawns buried in the middle. (Apparently I'm not the only one who felt ripped off. The sushi bombs have now been modified with an extra slice of sashimi-grade tuna and a dollop of tobiko.)
Pot stickers are fairly priced at $5.99. I'm not going to haggle. The chicken filling could be stuffed tighter and seasoned with more cilantro and green onion. But the base has pleasantly atypical, bracing ginger kick. And the silky wonton wrappers are pan-fried to a soft, buttery finish.
Classic Buffalo wings ($9.99) were priced fairly, but still disappointing. I'd been craving hot wings for weeks and could've been satisfied quite easily. These wings were barely crisp, slathered in a vinegary sauce and not worth the calories.
Our main courses take a very long time to arrive. Our waitress apologizes, explaining that the kitchen is "slammed." I wonder if that's why she twice forgets a round of beer and water.
The 9.2-ounce Rogue burger isn't the best burger in town. But it is made from house-ground sirloin, which means it can circumvent the health department's decree that all burgers be cooked well-done.
This burger is pink and extremely juicy. So juicy, in fact, that it really doesn't matter if the sesame-brioche is rather tasteless and the orange cheddar is as bland as Cheez Whiz. There are too many pickles inside the bun (three) and the potato starch in the fries has melted to a creamy texture (something I've never seen before).
Still, it's house-ground sirloin and thus undervalued at only $11.99. I think it's worth at least $13.99.
The grilled bacon and three cheese sandwich ($10.99) is only worth the price of the soup it's served with ($5.99). I didn't think it was possible to screw up a grilled cheese this bad. The cheese combination (yellow cheddar, Swiss and aged white cheddar) is incredibly bland. Why not add a little blue or Gruyère? The bread is stale and overgrilled. The back bacon looks and tastes like luncheon ham. And the roasted tomatoes are raw. The dish's only saving grace are the cornbread croutons in a side bowl of tomato-basil soup.
By the end of the meal, our waitress still hasn't mentioned the pay-what-you-think-it's-worth policy. When we ask the hostess about it, she brings us "oath cards," which we must fill out and sign.
The manager adjusts our bill, taking $6 off the total. I compensate by giving the waitress a 20-per-cent tip (not that she deserved it), yet still walk out feeling extremely cheap.
Mr. Gershkovitch says his social experiment is working out tremendously well. Most people, he says, are taking the oath seriously, the bills are balancing out and nobody has tried to stiff the house by paying $2 for a steak or anything equally outrageous.
But I'm not convinced. To misquote the former governor of Alaska: I can't see this all working out for the customer's good, I really can't.