He speaks to the audacity of hope, but doesn’t follow through when it counts. He raises expectations he will not meet and makes promises that he cannot keep — or at least his menu does. Though we may be swept up by our desire to believe, Head Chef David Foster of Foster’s Restaurant offers only false hopes to a public hungry for excellence.
From the outside, Foster’s seems to be a model of hip restaurant design. The walls of granite and painted brick are unadorned by artwork, but gentle track lighting and the occasional votive candle create an atmosphere that is at once soothing and trendy. The well-appointed bar is tastefully separated from the main dining space, giving it an appropriately intimate feel. Large pane glass windows present a surprisingly picturesque view of Orange Street. Even the more unorthodox design choices, such as the large white-fabric shapes that obscure much of the exposed ceiling, seem peculiarly appropriate.
The menu is similarly intriguing. Crawfish, duck and venison all make appearances, and while some dishes have a noticeably Asian or Latin bent, the vast majority seem to be rooted more in the chef’s creativity than any particular region. Described as “eccentric American,” Foster’s cuisine encompasses an adventurous range of ingredients and influences. Foster is exceedingly successful at engendering curiosity in his patrons.
Sadly, the restaurant fails to deliver on the promise of its menu and swanky dining area. At first, little details begin to erode the diner’s confidence in Foster’s savvy. Bad fusion jazz — the saxophone-heavy dreck ordinarily banished to supermarkets or in-flight radio channels — plays indiscreetly over the speakers. The cutlery, which wraps around your napkin, fits awkwardly in the hand.
A small basket of breads arrives first, offering croissant-y rolls and a deliciously crispy rosemary focaccia. The appetizers that follow, however, are not nearly as impressive as their titles. By itself, the artichoke torta ($7) was eggy and somewhat bland, but when mixed with the accompanying roasted red pepper coulis, the creamy sauce overpowered the delicate artichoke flavor. The multigrain quesadilla with lamb breast meat and smoked gouda ($10) was exceedingly thin, allowing the tortilla to obscure the subtle interplay between the gouda and the lamb. To balance the dry flavors of the quesadilla, Foster provides a small dollop of creme fraiche that competes with the tangy smokiness of the gouda.
The entrees also suffered from the same disharmony of flavor. The wild mushrooms in the whole-wheat ravioli ($17) were barely distinguishable beneath the silken but stultifying rich garlic cream sauce. Perhaps the most revealing expression of Foster’s inadequacies is the smoked duck breast stuffed with goat cheese and served with slivered pear brandy sauce and lobster mashed potatoes ($27). The diner cannot help but marvel at the idea of marshalling such wildly disparate flavors on the same plate — surely such an audacious entree would not be offered if the chef didn’t know something we don’t.
But the muddle of flavors that arrives makes this trust seem thoroughly naive. Good duck has a wonderfully distinct texture, but the duck at Foster’s tastes like nothing so much as slightly overdone beef. The effort required to cut through the duck and its superbly crisped skin pushes the paltry amount of goat’s cheese out onto the plate where it quickly dissolves in the abundant and overly sweet sauce. The generous helping of mashed potatoes, served in a quantity usually reserved for carbo-loading athletes, confined its flavor to the nuggets of intensely fishy lobster meat that hid within the fluffy starch. The only thing binding the dish together was the maple taste of the brandy pear sauce, which accomplished this task by mauling the flavors of every other item on the plate.
A field green salad with strawberry walnut vinaigrette ($9) was excellent. Tart and zesty in all the right ways, the salad provided a welcome respite from the rich and heavy flavors of the other dishes. Still, poor plating made the accompanying grape tomatoes and fresh mozzarella seem like afterthoughts, undressed and carelessly strewn around the edges of the salad. A chocolate raspberry flourless torte ($8) harnessed Foster’s tendency for richer, heavier flavors well, but cut corners on its somewhat artificial tasting raspberry sauce.
Sadly, Foster’s most common offering is frustration. For all the empty flash of the restaurant, there is a real sincerity in Foster’s dishes. At least in theory they demonstrate a cunning insight for combining unconventional flavors. Yet too many of its offerings hover between interesting and mediocre. The ambitions of the menu are rarely realized on the plate, a disappointment only sharpened by the arrival of the bill.