It was Friday night (early January, 2003), I didn't feel like cooking and the usual "where are we going to go for dinner" question popped up. Now that we have a baby, this question is not as easily answered as before. Mike seemed to be in the mood for some California-style food and he suggested Verbena, a restaurant where we'd been when I was still pregnant and had really liked. I didn't think it was the kind of place you'd take a baby to, however. With its large bar, dim lights and location in a downtown office building, it seems to me like a very adult sort of place, so I suggested we go to LMNO instead. We'd been to LMNO, a hip/artsy downtown Oakland restaurant, a few months before and had really enjoyed the food - even if we had to cut our visit short to go home and calm Michaela.
It wasn't until we actually went into the restaurant that we realized something was wrong. The place didn't look at all like we remembered, the artsy/industrial look was gone, the bar was in a different place and there were booths in the middle of the restaurant. A look at the sign by the front door confirmed that indeed this was a new restaurant, The Rex. We were already there, so we decided to give it a try.
According to the waiter, The Rex has been open for a couple of months and word doesn't seem to have spread yet (or maybe it has). The restaurant probably seats at least 60 people, but it was completely empty when we got there (at around 8 PM on a Friday night). While that may have been an ominous sign to some, we figured this way there would be no one around for Michaela to annoy. One couple came in during our visit, and they were seated in the booth immediately next to ours - maybe not the best idea given our potentially loud baby.
Even though the restaurant was empty, service was very slow. We were promptly seated and our drink orders were quickly taken, but it took quite a while for the waiter to bring bread to the table (toasted sourdough, pretty good, but a little too scant at only 4 slices for 3+ people). It took even longer for him to take our order, and when we were finally done eating and Michaela was getting noticeably antsy, it took him forever to bring us the bill. All this time he was behind the counter of the bar talking to a couple who were drinking and appeared to be friends. That said, he did refill Mike's drink several times and the food did come promptly once ordered.
The Rex's menu wasn't terribly interesting but it was broad enough. There were about eight each of appetizers, pastas and entrees, with fewer desserts. The food could be described as "Californian bistro" food. Prices were pretty good, with main dishes around $12-18, with filet mignon at the high end of the range.
We shared an appetizer of five-spice pork ribs which were fine, if a little messy. They could have used a little bit less sauce, but they were pleasantly spicy and we all liked them. Our entrees left more to be desired. I had the shank of lamb milanese with vegetables and couscous. The lamb shank came with a one-dimensional stew-type sauce, somewhat reminiscent in taste of minestrone soup. It was OK but not particularly enjoyable. The accompanying carrot and celery slices did not look very appetizing, even if I liked vegetables (I do eat carrots in stews). Instead of the advertised couscous, this dish came with some type of cornmeal mush, too thin to be called polenta. I didn't like it, but it was a good dish to serve to Michaela. I had a glass of Cabernet ($5.50) with my meal, and I found it to be extremely mild and not very interesting.
Mike ordered the fish and chips. He found the fish to be a little bit underdone and not very tasty and the chips to be a little bit too well done. My sister had the fettuccine alfredo with chicken and broccoli and three cheeses. The sauce was extremely bland and a little bit dry. Even the broccoli was lacking.
We skipped dessert because Michaela was getting fussy and the choices (which I've forgotten) didn't particularly appeal to us. The whole bill came about to $50, which would not have been bad if the food had been better.
Needless to say, we will not be going to The Rex again. Indeed, I can't imagine that the Rex will be around for much longer. If LMNO, which had much better food, could not make it in that space I can't see how the Rex will make it. Of course, both were/are primarily lunch places, but still, I can't imagine that the day-time cuisine would be much better than its evening counterpart. It's sad when you think that the owners must have spent a pretty penny on the remodeling - too bad they didn't pay as much attention to the selection of their chef.