An early 20th century brick fortress, the Culver Road Armory is now a mixed-use space, boasting modern flourishes of blonde wood, burnished chrome, and glowing light accents. On a Friday or Saturday night, the parking lot is packed. The main draw is TRATA, a.k.a. The Restaurant At The Armory.
The space alone is worthy of attention: TRATA is stunning. Comprised of three levels, the ceiling stretches high into the air. Its vertical height is made less cavernous by large, spherical lights positioned between the second and third floors. The space is a mix of industrial metals — grating banisters, support beams, duct work — and earthier elements like warm woods, sedately colored fabrics, and exposed brick.
The first floor bar provides a good vantage point from which to survey the restaurant and its clientele. During a Saturday evening visit, one corner of the bar featured three women in sweaters, jeans, and heeled boots with an infant in tow; in the second corner, two men in their early 20s looked ready for a night in the clubs; in the third was a couple in their late 50s, the woman dressed as what can only be described as an homage to Barbie. (The fourth corner was me, and between each grouping were scads of people.) It's a testament to TRATA's service that each party appeared happily occupied, comfortable, and satisfied.
It can't hurt that a favorite social lubricant, alcohol, is carefully selected and served at TRATA. The restaurant's signature cocktail, the 145 Culver ($7.50), blends gin, hibiscus, and muddled cucumber for a cool and sophisticated drink. Herbaceous in flavor with a medicinal finish, it is vividly pink, garnished with a cucumber slice and served in a martini glass.
A seasonal offering, the apple cider sangria ($6) mixes McKenzie's Seasonal Reserve Hard Cider with brandy and apple, lemon and orange juices for a fruity and light beverage that goes down easy. Those not in the mood for mixed drinks can sample the 48 beers on tap, focusing on American craft brewers, or order from TRATA's wine selection.
Note the American emphasis in the beer selections; there's a similar emphasis on the menu. Inspired by the Armory's roots — it was built in 1916 for use by the Army National Guard — TRATA's menu offers "New-American" dishes, with some fusion cuisine thrown in for variety.
The sautéed calamari ($9.95) is tender and fresh, with a sauce thickened with a puree of black beans. Though substantial, the sauce doesn't overwhelm the delicate squid. A tingly, spicy spark comes from the dish's cherry peppers — not too hot, but enough to jump start the tongue. Extra-virgin olive oil's fruity flavors and garlic's earthy warmth round out the dish.
Loaded fries ($12.95) are a staple in local pubs and casual restaurants. Here, they're dressed with a sauce made with cheddar, Monterey Jack, and Swiss cheeses, topped with pulled short-rib beef and flecked with thinly sliced scallions. The sauce has a creamy nuttiness with a hint of sharpness, and stands in contrast to fries' crisp saltiness and the beef's tender richness.
Asian lettuce wraps ($7.95), with a combination of stir-fried chicken, soy sauce, and ginger, are not an unusual find. But here the taste is fresh and the crunch enhanced. There's just enough soy sauce in the dish to encourage another taste, another bite, without the sodium overwhelming the other flavors.
The short ribs in the loaded fries stand on their own in the short-rib entree ($25.95). Browned before being braised in an oatmeal stout, the ribs are yielding and succulent. They're plated with a sauce similar in flavor to barbecue sauce but lighter; the sauce doesn't detract from the meatiness of the ribs.
All-American classics like buttermilk fried chicken ($16.95) and burgers (mushroom for $11.95; a daily special grilled Kobe burger $14.95), are like TRATA itself: towering, vertical constructions. They're topped with TRATA paper flags, the way a mountain climber might mark his achievement after scaling Kilimanjaro.
The chicken platter is stacked with a heap of mashed potatoes, topped by the bottom of a biscuit, followed by the chicken and the other half of the biscuit. All of this is smothered in a classic white gravy. The chicken's coating is darker than the usual golden brown, the meat moist and flavorful, and the mashed potatoes are creamy and comforting. The gravy added to the dish's down-home decadence.
Both burgers are of Dagwood sandwich proportions. They're flat-out great, allowing the beefiness to shine through. While there's just enough char, the meat is moist throughout, enhanced by the toppings. The mushroom burger is filled with umami — both beef and mushrooms are naturally chock full of it — and even the mayonnaise on the sandwich includes porcinis. Lovely, fatty, gooey melted Jarlsberg covers it all.
The Kobe burger is served on the food world's bread du jour, a pretzel roll. This is a hefty hunk of bread, but its slight sweetness harmonizes with the flavors in the beef-battered onion rings, bacon, and the sweet and smoky mayo that top the patty.
Not everything on the menu is as successful. The Brussels sprouts salad ($8.95) is one of TRATA's most popular dishes, featuring poached Brussels sprout leaves, tomatoes, hunks of bacon, and crispy, truffle-scented shallots dressed in an asiago-lemon vinaigrette. While the flavors were in harmony, the sprouts were undercooked, leaving them too chewy. After corresponding with restaurant manager Alexandra Greco, I'm confident that if I'd mentioned this to my server, the issue would have been rectified.
I say that because when my server noticed that I'd barely touched the sweet-potato fries ($5.95) I'd ordered as they were not to my liking — too bland — he apologized and removed the item from my bill. (He did not know I was there to review the restaurant.) Greco surmised that the fries were under seasoned on my visit. The chipotle-honey dipping sauce they came with, however, was quite good.
Other recommended plates include the NY strip steak ($28.95), mac and cheese with crispy prosciutto bread crumbs ($5.95), and the brownie sundae ($6.95). The latter layers two blondies and two scoops of vanilla ice cream with one brownie and drizzles of chocolate sauce and spiked caramel. It, too, is stacked tall and topped with a TRATA flag — and it's easier to conquer than the nearest high peak.