I like almost everything about Sundance Cinemas - the big, cushiony seats, Robert Redford's noble intentions, the fresh-popped popcorn and the smartly curated films. So the fact that the theater hasn't yet managed to serve the kind of food that matches all those good intentions, and that you'd expect from an artisanal cinema, has been frustrating.
The hope was that all that disappointment would evaporate when the menu was revamped and the new rooftop restaurant recently opened (the same menu is served in the enclosed second-floor bistro, but that only opens when the weather turns bad).
The signs were good. Mark Shoup, the executive chef of the Sundance Resort in Utah, has exported his own favorite recipes from the Resort's three restaurants to the Hilldale kitchen, and the new menu describes each dish in loving detail. They all sound good.
And some of them taste good, though our initial trip to the rooftop quickly devolved into a scene of chaos. The rooftop itself is fairly serene. There are gray metal garden tables and chairs, blue umbrellas and a tranquil view of the leafy hills rising behind Midvale Boulevard (unobstructed if you hunch down in your seat and block out the cement crown of the Hilldale parking ramp). Unfortunately, no one apparently was prepared for a sunny evening and a full house hoping to finish dinner before the early show of Sex and the City 2. A lot of them never made it. Most of the tables surrounding us on that first visit were waiting more than an hour for any plates of food at all, quite a few of them were vocally complaining, and the group of women seated next to us had to settle for their dinners packed in plastic carry-out containers.
The only compensation: No one was missing that much. Most of what we tasted was limp and weirdly anodyne, despite the lavish, loving, very long-winded homage to each dish on the menu. According to the doggedly poetic description, the crispy calamari rings have "always been a favorite" because they are "dipped in buttermilk and then tossed with ground-up panko breadcrumbs and then quickly fried." Maybe. But when the calamari itself is a pile of tough rubber bands, those panko breadcrumbs don't matter much, and when the whole thing is doused in an acidic, overstated vinaigrette, the buttermilk isn't going to come through.
You'll do slightly better with the jalapeño crab dip ("we start with crab and just enough jalapeño to give it a little spice...topped with a mixture of Romano, Asiago and Parmesan cheeses"). Mostly what our dish started with was a lot of cream cheese, and, while the result wasn't bad (aside from the crusty, flaking cheese topping that tasted mostly like a mixture of cheddar), it had the essence of something you'd serve yourself with a pile of nacho chips in front of the TV.
Things picked up a bit with main courses. I liked the pastrami burger, a nice juicy mound of meat, and while the achiote grilled chicken sandwich was surprisingly bland (more of the chipotle achiote sauce would help), it's still a filling hoagie. Blandness, though, despite the snaking list of serious ingredients referenced on the menu, is often the keynote here. The pumpkin-seed-crusted trout featured supremely tasteless fish. That at least was an improvement on the pepper steak, which was such a seriously tough, thick blob of impenetrable meat that we sent it back.
A second trip to the rooftop, though, when Sex fever had died down, made for a more successful visit. This time everyone got fed, the service was cheerful, and some of the dishes were even worth waiting for. While the hamburger, which seemed even juicier this time, still rates as the winner, a beer-battered fish and chips made for a fine plate. The cod was sweet and meaty, the batter rich but not overwhelming, and the accompanying coleslaw understated and crunchy. And while a roasted rack of pork was pretty tasteless, it was still tender, the accompanying peach compote added a little tang, and the typically low $14 price made up for things.
Maybe, though, it's best to stop there. The kitchen's slightly grainy panna cotta, topped by a caramelized banana, isn't bad. But the bread pudding is the kind of congealed, leaden dish that defies description. Thankfully, even the menu, which offers only an unusually prosaic list of pudding ingredients, doesn't really try.