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Trio’s: Great Specials, Live Music and Near Misses

Observer Scene | Wednesday, February 25, 2009

While certainly not a big city, South Bend is able to claim a fair influence on jazz. South Bend has yielded notables, from Junior Walker’s star Motown drummer Billy “Stix” Nicks to the nation’s oldest Collegiate Jazz Festival. Even legendary Wynton Marsalis has performed at Notre Dame twice in the last five years.

Trying to capitalize on the city’s jazz heritage is a fair number of jazz clubs, ranging from hole-in-the-wall (The Pub) to high-end (Club LaSalle). Somewhere in the middle falls Trio’s Restaurant & Jazz Club, at Michigan and Colfax in the city. Billed as an “upscale casual dining” experience, Trio’s makes an attempt at emulating a bigger city offering.

The room is divided into one-third restaurant, one-third jazz club and one-third bar, although the short balustrades leave openness for all three to intermingle. Even though Trio’s opened in the fall of 2007, the paintings and colors give the atmosphere a 90s feel, and uncomfortably so; I was almost wary of running into friends’ parents on their date night. The bathrooms were in fine shape, but the bizarre faucets would have been more appropriate at Tomorrowland.

Next to the award-winning menu (the handout, not the food), certainly one of Trio’s best assets is the music. While not exactly one of the city’s more fun jazz clubs, the music seems to be on par with the rest. A live jazz pianist works Wednesdays and Thursdays, and South Bend favorites like Nicks’ Quartet and Trio’s house band, The Herb Wilson Ensemble, play Fridays and Saturdays. Their thorough website has an extended schedule (and also full menus). On Sundays, Trio’s offers a Champagne Jazz Brunch, with menu items including eggs benedict and homemade blueberry shortcake.

Executive Chef Brett Boomhower serves American food, highlighting the cuisine of Kansas City and New Orleans. Dishes like “St. Louis style” barbeque pork ribs and jambalaya are meant to evoke Boomhower’s national worldliness, but these items don’t exactly whisk diners out of South Bend.

Some of the best food from Trio’s is hidden in the specials, like the voodoo flatbread pizza, with a taste of chipotle. For appetizers, the sampler provided perhaps the best part of the meal: an excellent red pepper hummus and pita, full spinach artichoke dip and chips and bruschetta with a slightly spicy tomato mix. On Mardi Gras, the crawfish and shrimp gumbo was a marvelous non-menu item treat.

Plates are served with generous portions, especially for upscale dining. The desserts run the gamut. The key lime pie is not bad, but too many things are slightly off. The body is too creamy, the crust is too soggy and the pie is not tart enough to compensate for the sweet drizzle. The homemade peach bread pudding was something to acknowledge. Even the sweetest tooth won’t be able to cope with the overwhelming primary taste of sugar, although in between the first and last few bites, the warm bread and sugary pudding are able to be ashamedly enjoyed. The highlight of the desserts was the homemade whipped cream – almost a dessert in itself.

All things considered, the best way to describe Trio’s is as a near miss. The service was excellent; our amicable waitress chatted with us about the menu and even tried the specials. But, the sampler came out a minute after our entrées, leaving us to play a difficult game of lifeboat ethics with the food. The dips were fantastic, but the pita was stale. The gumbo was a treat, but lacking a certain authenticity. The yankee pot roast was well-rounded, but the gravy sauce tasted canned. The desserts were tasty, but too sweet or too soft. Even the atmosphere was almost fit, but the lighting was much better suited for nighttime.

Trio’s is only over a year old, and Boomhower and staff could do well to continue tweaking. With the great location (across the street from the South Bend Chocolate Company), and the great outlet for South Bend Jazz, Trio’s has potential as a solid date restaurant. I haven’t written Trio’s off, but I’ll wait for some minor changes before my next visit.

Contact J.J. Rees at jrees@nd.edu.