There's a forlorn air that hangs over an empty restaurant, and persists no matter how good the meal or how handsome the dining room. The pan-Latin food at Gilberth's Rotisserie and Grill is exciting, occasionally even excellent, and the industrial-chic decor is well-wrought, but on a recent Wednesday night we were the only people present to enjoy it. The crowd spilling out of Serpentine down the street gave the lingering impression that the party was happening somewhere else.
Gilberth's shortage of dinner guests could be due to the lack of clear signage (I drove past the restaurant the first time around, and nearly walked past it on the second), or the menu's predilection for exotic meats and obscure dishes. But if I had to guess, the lack of customers is due to the service, which is slow at best and borderline-incompetent at worst. Bad service is especially frustrating when you're the only customers to serve. It's a shame, because with a little more polish, Gilberth's could easily become a small-plates-and-drinks destination restaurant.
Things began well at a late lunch a few days earlier. The room was half-full with lingering groups, and the afternoon sunlight streaming through large windows warmed up the poured-concrete-and-steel-pipe decor. Tall jars of sunflowers and a bouncy indie pop soundtrack contributed to the good mood, which transferred easily to the food itself.
To start, there were thin, lightly salted plantain chips, still warm from the fryer and served with a fresh-tasting salsa that burned with low intensity. A juicy lamb-chorizo burger was just as good as any choice hamburger, with a faint hint of earthy lamb backed by the spice of the chorizo and a smoky aioli. The airy bun was toasted and buttered; the pickled veggies on the side were tart and crunchy; and the hand-cut fries were well-seasoned and perfectly crisp. Fried brussels sprouts arrived dusted with a purplish chipotle seasoning nicely complemented by a citrusy tang and salty shaved manchego cheese. These were so good I wondered how I could recreate them for Thanksgiving this year.
Even at lunch the service wasn't speedy, but the quality of the meal and the cheerful atmosphere put us in a leisurely, forgiving mood. Not so at dinner, when the empty room felt closer to sterile, and awkward service overshadowed the food. Our waitress hadn't mastered a complicated-seeming iPhone ordering system, and I had to repeat the order so many times I nearly asked if I could write it down and walk it to the kitchen myself. When another couple finally arrived, she seated them at the next table over despite a sea of alternatives. She exhibited none of a server's knack for knowing the right time to insert herself, often interrupting our conversations to check on us, and hovering except when it came time for the bill, which we had to get up and request after 10 minutes of waiting.
It was too bad, because the meal was innovative and, for the most part, deftly executed. The shredded alligator in the alligator tacos was tender in its red chile sauce, encased in shells more like flaky pastry than tortilla rounds, and topped with a tangy pickled vegetable slaw that played off the muddiness of the alligator meat. In the slider trio, it was a little tricky to differentiate between the ostrich, venison, and buffalo variations, especially since they were dressed similarly with a garlicky chimichurri salsa, but the meat was juicy and flavorful, and the toasted buns were smaller versions of the airy buns at lunch.
Some dishes struggled for cohesion, like the cactus salad, which turned out to be overdressed butter lettuce garnished with slices of radish, ripe avocado, and grilled cactus. It needed something else to bring the flavors together — a sweet element to balance out the zing of the radish and creaminess of the avocado — and the cactus itself was a disaster, overwhelmingly smoky and with all the sliminess of poorly cooked okra.
One wall of the restaurant is taken up with a large silhouette of a rooster imprinted on a copper sheet — an irresistible advertisement for rotisserie chicken, a South American staple. The spice-rubbed skin on the half-chicken could have been crispier, and the dark meat was slightly underdone while the breast was slightly dry. It was served with a red salsa that didn't do the spice blend any favors, but the waitress left a chimichurri sauce served earlier on the table because it went well with the dish — it did, but why not put them together in the first place?
After the third Death Cab for Cutie song, the soundtrack that had been so charming at lunch started making us feel as though we were in a college dorm instead of a high-end Latin restaurant. Chef/owner Gilberth Cab and his wife, Julia, own two other Dogpatch eateries (New Spot and Oralia's Cafe), but this is their first venture into a full-service restaurant, and their lack of experience shows. Gilberth's could still succeed and thrive, but first it has some growing up to do.