The Continental is an East Village hangout that I like for its smart, intriguing cocktails. If only the menu were as good.
If you haven’t been, I should explain that The Continental is a lounge on Locust just a short walk from the Iowa State Capitol Building. Inside, the long dining area begins with a handsome wood bar that complements the rough, exposed brick walls. There is a popular happy hour here and, on the weekends, live music.
It all sounds great, but I’m afraid that in some cases the kitchen over-promises and under-delivers.
This was especially apparent when I ate off the “small plates and tapas” section of the menu during a recent lunch there with friends.
The meal got off to a poor start when my order of hot chocolate arrived. The impressive mug wowed with its picturesque dollop of whipped cream. However, with no sugar at all to sweeten the beverage, it tasted horrible. They made me a new one but it was just more of the same. Hello, no one likes unsweetened hot chocolate!
The best of the food was the dish of crispy polenta fries ($5.95). I like the trick of how these are made: Polenta, which is boiled cornmeal, is chilled until firm then sliced into strips and deep fried to a golden brown hue. It was smartly paired with a spicy Louisiana sauce called remoulade.
And I thought the puerco pibil tacos ($8.95) were good. Puerco pibil (more commonly called cochinita pibil) is Mexico’s version of Southern pulled pork. Highly seasoned pork shoulder is slowly roasted until fork tender. The Continental’s tacos had ample pork and fresh pico de gallo.
But the smoky chipotle hummus ($7.95) needed salt badly and the panko crab cakes ($9.95) were mealy and tasted unpleasantly fishy.
I think I could have enjoyed the chicken and chorizo brochettes ($9.95) if not for the fact that they were overcooked. These skewers included Spanish chorizo, red onion, green peppers, and chunks of chicken breast that were unfortunately very dry.
The worst tapa could have been the best if it had been cooked properly: the cheese and olive empanadillas ($8.95). These Spanish pastries were stuffed with manchego cheese and Kalamata olives, which was a tasty filling. But while the dough appeared brown and cooked outside, it was mostly gummy and raw.
While most of the menu is relegated to tapas, The Continental also offers salads, sandwiches, and three entrees — hanger steak, vegetarian lasagna, and seared tilapia — which are available from 5 to 10 p.m.
Of these, I enjoyed the hanger steak ($18.95) most but found the creamy whiskey sauce too rich, and I also wish the plate had come with a green vegetable rather than garlic-basil toast.
I ate my steak with a terrific whiskey smash, which was loaded with muddled citrus. Spying the bartender as he crafted the drink, I noticed how he carefully took a drop from the cocktail to taste.
No wonder that drink, as least, was perfect.