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First Look at Bradley's Fine Diner

It's clear when you walk into Bradley's Fine Diner, the new concept by James Beard award-winning chef Bradley Ogden, that his team -- helmed by Bryan Ogden, Bradley's son -- know what they are doing. It doesn't matter that the restaurant occupies the corner of an unassuming strip mall just south of Interstate 10. The location relieves some of the pretension that might be associated with a big-name chef like Ogden, so that the focus is on the important things, like food and service.

That's not to say that the space isn't attractive, because it is -- very much so. Though the facade is nondescript, the interior is very much a design space. I loved the blue-gray and yellow palette of the decor, which gave the place a preppy-country feel, and the unique elements that gave it personality, like the chandelier of inverted tree branches in the anterior area of the restaurant. A pale yellow glow from the word "FINE" -- emblazoned on the back wall -- is tasteful rather than distracting, a modern interpretation of the bright red neon signs one might find at an old-school diner.

The vibe is upscale casual. Servers wear a loose uniform of plaid shirts. There are no tablecloths. There are standalone tables or booths, a banquette for lounging, and seating for couples and larger groups. An attractive back-lit bar spans the left wall, offering a crafted cocktail list if you want to start the evening with pre-dinner drinks, and an accessible, mostly American wine list by sommelier Rob Ortiz.

And the food -- the most important part -- was good to excellent, starting with their bread service, which came in the form of blue corn grit muffins served with creamy, soft butter. The smallish gray domes were remarkable in flavor and texture. I've been trying to minimize my carb intake lately, and had planned on taking only a bite to taste, but couldn't help finishing off the whole thing, which was very moist and obviously house-made and displayed a pleasant grittiness.

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For starters, the bone marrow toast was a winner. It arrived on a plain white plate -- several small slabs of toast smeared with rich bone marrow, reminding me of a simple toast with butter but way more decadent. I sort of missed seeing the big bone that the marrow comes in, but I appreciated the fact that someone else had done all the work so that I could just enjoy.

That's where the "fine" part of Bradley's Fine Diner comes into play. While the ambience is informal, the food and service are not. A split pea soup arrives in a bowl with the solids in the bottom, and is finished off with a pour of liquid right at the table. What could have been a plain ol' slider rocketed into the realm of luxury when fluffy, just-crisped buns arrived stuffed -- not with meat but with a quail egg and and a generous helping of caviar.

For our entrées, Maine diver scallops were about as perfect as they could get, each one seared so that the tops were a caramelized brown. Small pillows of lemon gnocchi and wilted spinach in a creamy sauce with bacon chunks completed the dish, which I thoroughly enjoyed. An oak-grilled center-cut prime wagyu rib eye, arranged in a fan of pink-centered medium rare slices over baby carrots, broccolini and a potato, was also very good. The bone marrow red wine sauce was a nice touch, and though I found the dish slightly underseasoned, it washed down well with my glass of Cabernet Franc, one of my favorite grape varietals at the moment.

We skipped dessert but had a wholly memorable evening, so much so that my companion returned the very next day with friends -- which, at the the end of the day, is all that a new restaurant can ask for.

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