Sponge worthy

Watering hole offers apres-work libations with food to match

It's a Friday night and Bar Louie is packed with an oddball mix of middle-aged golfers, nuclear families and metrosexual man-cougars on the prowl. Its walls are lined with photographs evocative of jewelry adverts, accentuated with the eyes and teeth of models reflecting a bourgeois ideal steadfastly preserved by this raucous joint. It being happy hour lent to an increased decibel level, primarily centered in the periphery of the sizable rectangular bar where said patrons gaped at plasma screens and sloshed down draft beer ($3), wine ($4) and cocktails ($5) at happy-hour prices. Others sat in the patio overlooking the Rialto's scenic parking lot while some, like my guest and I, opted for a table in the center of the airy dining room in which to enjoy the array of half-priced small plates.

Bar Louie's reputation for serving above-average food certainly preceded it ' the eatery is run by Restaurants America, a Chicago-area-based consulting group operating more than 60 upscale restaurants covering 10 different concepts around the country. (The only other local representative is the Red Star Tavern at Orlando Fashion Square mall.) Given the chain's credentials, I wanted to believe the hype, but the dishes we sampled were for the most part ordinary and fell well short of inspiring.

As avenues to sobriety, however, the dishes exceed expectations, particularly the doughy Bavarian pretzel sticks ($3.50) with cinnamon butter, queso and honey-mustard dips, which even lucid diners will enjoy. As avenues to drunkenness, several libations can help facilitate the condition ' we sampled a smooth and sweet 'kokomojitoâ?� ($5), splashed with pineapple rum, and a more offensive, lime-heavy caipirinha ($5) served on the rocks. Cocktails are taken quite seriously here, and bibulous barflies can opt for a variety of signature drinks, martinis, margaritas, cosmopolitans and mojitos. Bruschetta ($3.50), served in an obnoxiously large martini glass, acts as a booze sponge with grilled country bread surrounding a mound of chunky pomodoro. But the cup of New Orleans chicken gumbo ($1.50) was an insipid mush, and the macaroni and cheese ($9.99) could've been replicated by college kids with some Velveeta and bread crumbs. The congealed, gluey consistency of the four-cheese concoction made it immediately forgettable. The Blue Moon'battered fish sandwich ($9.99) fared a bit better ' the tilapia cut was wonderfully mild and fleshy, but the overdone beer batter wasn't golden-brown as promised. While the accompanying side of fries was satisfactory, we both reacted adversely to the not-at-all-tart tartar sauce. Another very ordinary item from the bill of fare: the blackened chicken muffuletta pizza ($9.99), layered with an olive mix and Cajun seasoning. The flabby crust was a disappointing feature ' it had the taste and texture of Pillsbury dough, not proper pizza dough.

This may seem like a harsh indictment of Bar Louie's kitchen, but it's fair given that they cater to a sophisticated clientele with sophisticated palates in a sophisticated neighborhood. From a diner's perspective, the food doesn't raise the bar by any means; but from a drinker's perspective, it certainly holds water â?¦ and hooch.

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