City dwellers who are used to urban coffeehouses and wine bars, normally found in renovated storefronts and converted townhouses, will have a hard time relating to Bliss, the new coffee and wine bar in Riverside. (It's not in nearby Bel Air, in spite of what the Web site says.)
When I say new, I mean really new. Bliss is one of the first tenants in the new Riverside shopping center. Everything about it is shiny new, from the walls of windows to the casual, contemporary furnishings to the industrial chic exposed pipes to the flat-screen TV. (Not something you expect in either a coffeehouse or wine bar.)
I like the fact that Bliss has a personality all its own. And it's an interesting concept to have a coffeehouse, wine bar and full-fledged restaurant together. But that's also its biggest problem. It's all in one big room, and especially if you're having an early dinner at the end of happy hour, the place is very noisy. Although the dinner menu includes dishes like a filet with a black cherry reduction, Bliss strikes me more as a restaurant to stop in and have a bite after work than a fine-dining experience.
Nothing wrong with that. The menu is set up so that dinner salads have a prominent place (you can add chicken, beef or shrimp for a few dollars extra), and the appetizers are really small plates. If the half rack of "lollipop" lamb chops is too much for you, order the appetizer version, which is three chops. Small but meaty, they were grilled pink as ordered, with a fruity but not too sweet cranberry glaze and a scattering of walnuts.
If you feel like shrimp, they come prepared two different ways as an entree, or you can have three fat ones as an appetizer with an excellent sweet-sour cucumber salad. The appetizer shrimp are swimming in a Grand Marnier barbecue sauce, although it could just as well have had a splash of Mountain Dew as liqueur. The sauce is simply too fiery to taste of anything but heat.
The kitchen had its ups and downs. A shrimp bisque, smooth as cream - probably because it contained so much cream - had just the right delicate texture (so you can pretend it's lighter than it really is) and was filled with chopped shrimp. It was a minor tour de force. But the halibut decorated with big lumps of crab meat, a special that night, had a lime butter sauce that tasted of nothing much. It arrived with mashed potatoes and the vegetable of the day, cauliflower. Even adding a wedge of lime and a pink orchid didn't make the all-white plate look any less bland than it tasted. Much as I like cauliflower, and I do, it isn't a good vegetable of the day to serve with potatoes.
Minor improvements could make a big difference. The "vegetarian rose," a sort of pasta primavera, is made with cappellini, a creamy tomato sauce and grilled vegetables. The flavors are wonderful; it's the proportions that are off. More vegetables and less pasta and sauce, please.
The cheese plate, really for two, has port wine cheddar, sharp cheddar and smoked Gouda. It's supposed to come with strawberries, grapes and kiwi slices; but bing cherries were substituted for kiwi slices. That was fine - more than fine, really. But the red grapes had been taken off their stems so there was just an unattractive pile of loose grapes. Also, the kitchen had added slices of salami and a blob of spicy mustard to the plate, which was a little odd.
The dessert made in-house was the weakest of the ones we tried. The chef, who brought it out (the place was so busy the poor guy was helping out the servers when he wasn't cooking), apologized because the chocolate mousse in a chocolate cup was too stiff and had little lumps. Good flavor, though. The Key lime pie and berry tart, made by someone local, were both excellent.
Bliss' wine list is filled with familiar names and easy-drinking bottles. The list isn't extensive, but it changes periodically and is affordably priced, with enough choices by the glass. You might think a place that labels itself a wine bar would put more emphasis on wine; this is more just what you'd expect at a nice restaurant.
And that's what Bliss is. If you go in with a preconceived notion of what a coffeehouse or wine bar should be, you might be disappointed. If you accept it as a nice suburban restaurant with a warm and welcoming staff and a kitchen that can produce some very good food, you'll be happier. So it needs to get a few kinks out. It's still a better option than the chains in the area.
Bliss Coffee and Wine Bar Address: 1402 Handlir Drive, Riverside
Hours: Open daily for continental breakfast, lunch and dinner
Price: Appetizers: $7.95-$11.95; entrees: $14.95-$24.95
Call: 410-272-0505, live-your-bliss.com
Food: ** 1/2
Atmosphere: ** 1/2