RESTAURANT REVIEW: Uptown Diner 

Downtown comfort food

Uptown: A Finer Diner
American/Eclectic — Upscale
Entrées: $15-$20
Open for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner
Downtown
412 King St.
720-1433

I always loathed having to park around the old Bookstore Café space on Upper King, sandwiched among the trendy art galleries that now share space with homeless drifters, the college drinking scene, and a number of other, more accessible restaurants, but the space may be in a better position than anyone ever imagined. Assuming the new hotel slated for the old library building next door on Marion Square materializes, the brand new Uptown: A Finer Diner may have the best seat in the house, poised to populate its handmade steel barstools with hungry tourists at all hours of the day.

Those who come for breakfast will not be disappointed. You can actually eat a bowl of shrimp and grits in the a.m. at the Uptown, and it's a damn fine bowl of grits, too. They're stone-ground, loaded with cheese, teeming with bacon and sliced green scallions, and sporting a slight tinge of pink, presumably from a bit of tomato in the mix. To eat them in the morning, in all their rich, creamy glory, allows a renewed understanding of why shrimp and grits is such a great dish — like all foods originally borne from poverty, it turns what would ordinarily be a rather pedestrian experience of toast and an egg into a luxurious start to a busy day.

Uptown's version features big, fat shrimp that come perfectly cooked, and at $9.95, represents a pretty good deal. If you wait until lunch, it drops to $9.85 and later on at dinner the same preparation will cost you a buck more, but outside of such occasional inconstancy and few less-than-stellar dinner selections, the place definitely shines with nice values and fills a need for a good breakfast and brunch joint in the vicinity of Marion Square.

Where Uptown invariably comes up short is in its ability to put an acceptable dinner together. "We're out of all but one of the sparkling wines," we hear at the start of a long meal. Later, we learn that they also lack several other wines on the very intriguing list, perhaps the best tasting concept in the city, divided into intuitive categories of descriptors, each section priced at flat rates among several different available quantities. "We had a busy weekend," our server apologizes, so we settle for an available bottle and dig into dinner at the diner.

Compared to the breakfast scene, the evening dishes simply don't add up. Sure, that same shrimp and grits makes its pricier nocturnal debut, but the pork chop ($18) seems devoid of moisture. The apricot-sage dressing and "house-made cider demi-glace" (is there a store-bought cider demi-glace?) does little to assuage the dry pork, even if the intense direct heat of the grill left beautiful grill marks on the meat.

The New York strip ($22) is a nice piece of meat, perfectly cooked, tender, and rather well marbled, but for that kind of dough they could at least give you the option to not have it drowned in a "green peppercorn sauce" whose amount almost equals the volume of the steak and has no distinctiveness. It bears a strange resemblance to the "Old Shoe," a hallowed late-night dish at the Capitol Restaurant in Columbia, which centered on a cheap beefsteak covered in fries and then brown gravy. It's an altogether shameful way to treat such a nice cut of meat, even if Uptown is supposed to be a diner.

More promising are the starters, which feature some tasty vinegar potato chips ($5.25) with a jack cheese sauce, crispy and hot; a competent daily rendition of steamed mussels ($8.95); something called "Bling Bling Shrimp" ($9.50), which are deep fried with an interesting spicy crust; and the find of the year — one of the best versions of tuna tartare to be had in the city ($9.95). It makes the very good version down at Hank's seafood look like a blasé imposter. The menu claims an award-winning provenance for the tartare, and although the waitress had no idea what award that was, one taste made us true believers. Fat chunks of fresh tuna tossed with the biting sweetness of sake, a subtle sting of Sriracha hot sauce, and a kick of sesame oil piled on some fried wontons quickly won the attention of the crowd and was gobbled down in seconds. Perhaps that's where all the champagne went, because a glass of bubbly and a couple plates of that chopped tuna could make your entire weekend.

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