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Donnie Ferneau is still the chef at the restaurant that until recently bore his name. The food is still good. But it's a different place.
Frank Fletcher — the auto dealer, hotelier, restaurateur, thoroughbred owner, seller of beaucoup lamps to Walmart, etc. — bought Ferneau in November. Around May 1, he changed the name to Rocket Twenty One in tribute to one of his best racehorses, though the "Rocket" is downplayed in the restaurant logo, and the restaurant likely will commonly come to be known as "Twenty One."
Cosmetic changes include a large aquarium and adjacent wine display cabinet that separate the now-larger bar area from the restaurant more distinctly than before. Fletcher also has instituted the same "early-bird special" deal he features at Benihana and Riverfront Steakhouse, the two restaurants in his Riverfront Wyndham hotel: Buy one entree and get one entree of equal or lower price free from 5:30-6:45 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. And lunch — which will be the focus of this review — has been added.
Rocket Twenty One has a cool bistro feel with stylish, curved water glasses, soup bowls that sit at an angle and silverware with curved handles. Classic rock played unobtrusively during our first visit.
Lunch is exceedingly affordable, particularly compared to typical Ferneau prices, with everything less than $10. Both times we were there tomato bisque was the soup of the day ($4.50), and it's a thick, chunky soup accented by a ribbon of balsamic vinegar — all in all hearty and satisfying.
The apple and goat cheese salad ($7.95 and entree-sized) was amazing — mixed greens, julienned Granny Smith apples and chunks of very soft goat cheese accented perfectly with a creative salted caramel vinaigrette. We also spent a whopping $1 for a saucer full of homemade, crunchy, salty, addictive potato chips. We wanted more but had gotten the last order on a late-lunch visit.
The fish tacos ($7.95) feature flavorful, non-fishy slabs of fried pollock encased in grilled flour tortillas and topped with a jalapeno pineapple salsa that almost overwhelmed the fish in terms of taste and quantity. The chipotle mayo offered a bit of zing. The Rocket Burger ($6.95) was almost as tall as it was broad, cooked medium as ordered — the buttered, griddled bun a nice touch. It came cut in half, which made it more manageable. The accompanying shoestring fries were pretty standard for their type.
As we entered for our second lunch visit we saw a departing friend who asked us if we, like him, had heard Fletcher on 103.7 the Buzz that morning touting a two-for-one entree lunch special that day. We hadn't, and we're guessing it was a one-time deal, but we were happy our timing was good.
There were three of us, but we took advantage of the deal by ordering four entrees and paying for two:
• Cuban Pork Sandwich ($7.95): a thicker, meatier-than-usual version with a good-sized stack of smoky ham sandwiched between layers of tender, shredded pork with Swiss cheese binding the whole melange between well-griddled bread — mustard and pickles providing flavor accents.
• "Classic" Fettuccine Alfredo ($7.95 — add $3.95 for chicken or $4.50 for shrimp): Our buddy called this "elegantly simple" and indeed it was the "classic" version — creamy, with a nice parmesan zing and plenty of garlic, with just a few fresh spinach leaves tossed in for color.
• Bowtie Cheddar Mac-n-Cheese ($6.75): Decent but not overly creamy (or cheesy) macaroni and cheese comes in an individual-sized casserole dish with a layer of nicely browned-until-crunchy layer of cheddar on top.
• Shrimp and Grits with Tasso ($9.75): Six plump, medium-sized shrimp sat atop a large pile of creamy grits mingled with a few chunks of cooked tomato, all swimming in a fairly mild sauce. (We missed the ham; maybe it was hiding from us.) This was a wholly satisfying dish, though the sauce — like that on the alfredo and in the mac/cheese — could have used more kick.
We can't speak for dinner, but at lunch it seems Rocket Twenty One is shooting for the middle, and hitting the mark. And that please-the-masses approach makes sense. No big risks are being taken, but all dishes are well-executed, presentation is superb and the lunch experience is pleasant.
Sorry, but I don't see how a return visit is going to make those soft…