STAY TUNED? With entrées like this "Never-been-frozen TV dinner," Happy's is a confusing collision
of chefly thinking and diner ideals — but just wait six months.
In a year of bad restaurant ideas, one of the better bets is to have a successful fancy-food chef try a downscale restaurant. When it works, the more focused menu and price constraints can lead to splendid results. When it doesn't, it's often because the chef patronizes the format, or just doesn't get it.
At Happy's, we have Michael Schlow, an apparent master of the move with Radius, Via Matta, and Tico. But at Happy's, despite lots of thought and effort, the soul of the retro-'50s diner, bar-in-your-basement idea gets lost in the complexities of postmodern montage.
We start with breakfast, and my report on "soft poached eggs with spicy duck and green chile hash, crispy English muffin, and chipotle hollandaise" ($11) is that this particular collision of chefly thinking and diner ideals was initially kind of a train wreck. The hash was greasy and salty (as it should be) with chopped green chilies standing in nicely for black pepper. But the poached eggs were nearly as hard as hard-boiled (easy to fix), the hints of hollandaise (no chipotle bite on my morning) only somewhat made up for the lack of the anticipated gooey egg-yolk-hash combo, and the muffin was just like everywhere else. A side order of hash browns ($3.49) had been rethought into a pancake in a mini iron wok. Cute, but hash brown potatoes have a combination of caramelized bits and pure starch, with salt and pepper coming in and out, that this tasteless latke just doesn't approximate. Excellent coffee ($3), but no offer to refill.
Dinner starts with real Italian bread and a pour of fabulous extra-virgin olive oil. "The greatest wedge . . . ever" ($8.49) is pretty close to that: iceberg lettuce, crisp bacon, and not too much dressing. "International, non-denominational, bi-partisan chicken soup" ($6.99) hasn't a lot of broth, but what there is, is choice, and the shallow bowl is full of matzo balls.
Arugula salad ($6.49) is simply that, with a lemon–olive oil dressing and a little shaved parmesan. A bar snack I liked was cauliflower with creamy chipotle and "crunchies" ($8.49). The crunchies are just heavily toasted bread crumbs, but the roast cauliflower and a few roasted fresh fava beans with a creamy hot-pepper sauce are a treat. The only losing small plate was "tender duck tacos" ($9), which despite cilantro, mint, and chilies were lost in the enveloping tortilla.
Entrées are all over the place, from "Never-been-frozen TV dinner 'du jour' " (served in a partitioned plate, with dessert) to what are clearly bistro dishes. In the middle are "blue plate specials." A recent "all you can eat fried chicken" ($19.99, Mondays) was excellent, and will be even better when they brine a little more salt into the chicken and remove it from the terrifically crisp batter. The dip is sweet-hot, and there are tiny biscuits even richer than the ones nearby at Sweet Cheeks, plus a token cole slaw.