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FIVE YET TO ARRIVE Dishes don't quite earn their price tags
FIVE ***/5 744 29th St. South, 868-3841
Five is a happening place, judging from the crowds packing this new restaurant at the gateway to the Lakeview entertainment district.
On a recent Thursday, Five was filled with professionals in pairs or groups, while a few trolled the packed bar area. Ribs cooked on the exposed grill next to the hostess station.
Five is a great spot for a post-work wind down, a girls' night out, a date before hitting a club down the street or a festive Sunday brunch.
It's also a visual feast. Mismatched chandeliers and stained glass windows dangle from the tin ceiling. Giant images of Bear Bryant, the Dalai Lama, Dwight Eisenhower and the Beatles, as well as smaller paintings of flowers and photos of ball players, hang on exposed brick walls.
The ornate wooden bar is stunningly beautiful, sourced from several places and built around two large pieces of stainedglass art and a mirror cut to evoke the sun.
Five fits into the growing genre of gastropubs, restaurants that offer high-end food and cocktails but in a more casual atmosphere and for less than fine-dining prices. Ollie Irene is metro Birmingham's gold standard for this new breed.
Five's cheeseburger reflects the restaurant's ambition. The $13 price tag is not unprecedented (and is even exceeded) around town, but whoever charges that much had better deliver. Five's version is a satisfyingly meaty, juicy, house-ground
patty accompanied by thin, hand-cut fries with huge potato flavor.
But among the many hits coming out of Five's kitchen were a few misses. Perhaps those are better described as opportunities to reach full potential in the latest restaurant from an accomplished ownership group that includes Chuck's Fish in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa and the well-regarded Dharma Blue in Pensacola, Fla.
Five's menu is built around a simple premise, offering five each of ''snacks'' (appetizers), entrees, ''signature cocktails,'' red wines, white wines, regional microbrews and macro beers. There's also one nightly special, one dessert and one beignet option on the Sunday brunch menu.
The inherent limits of that simplicity can backfire. You'd better like white chocolate bread pudding ($8), or you won't have dessert at Five. And vegetarians should wait for Sunday brunch.
Appetizers are portioned to share, but are not overwhelming for a solo eater. Spring rolls ($6) are big and meaty, served with an amped-up version of the sweet/spicy dipping sauce served in Thai restaurants. Another hit was Uptown Shrimp ($11), crisp fried shrimp slathered in a savory slightly sweet sauce. The bowl, a fried spring roll skin, is edible.
Yoshie's Chicken ($7) is bits of fried chicken dressed in aioli with sriracha. A squeeze of lime helped the overall flavor but the sauce could have used a bit more kick.
In Baked Avocado ($7), the creaminess of warm avocado played beautifully with sweet smoky bacon, briny shrimp and a
spicy binding sauce. But the presentation, a half avocado served on a carrot and microgreen salad, was odd. The salad was too warm to eat, but it wasn't an efficient holder for the avocado skin, either. Maybe this would work better as a dip in a bowl, not the skin.
The baby back ribs ($8 appetizer; $18 Wednesday night special) didn't work. The appetizer portion included five ribs, cut for maximum meatiness. But it was overly salty. Barbecue and sauces are extremely personal preferences, but the two sauces, one red and vinegary and the other black (burnt molasses?), did not rank among my favorites.
FISH AT FIVE
Five traces its roots to the Harbor Docks seafood market in Destin, Fla. But the fish at Five didn't always live up to that promise.
The Thursday-night special is Grilled Gulf Fish ($27), recently black grouper. You won't walk away hungry from this one; not only is the grouper a nice-sized portion, but the side of polenta with jalapeno and gouda cheese is huge. The fish was very tasty, too. But it was slightly overcooked. At that price, I expected better.
The salad, included with all entrees, exceeded expectations. Microgreens adorned with dried and fresh fruits and slivered nuts were refreshingly perfect for summer.
The stuffed shrimp ($23) really disappointed. The centerpiece - four large bacon-wrapped shrimp, filled with a could-be-crabbier crab mixture - didn't justify its price tag. Many diners will need all or most of the huge side serving of garlic mashed potatoes to walk away full.
Don't miss the Big Easy atmosphere of Sunday brunch at Five, which includes $2 mimosas and a make-your-own Bloody Mary bar ($8).
Beignets were good, although pricey at three for $6. The accompanying caramel apple bourbon sauce was incredible. Bananas Fosters French Toast ($12) had a nice toasted banana flavor, with fruit sliced on top and whipped cream on the side.
Wings 'N' Waffles ($12) was an interesting take on the soul food classic. The thick honey-walnut Belgian waffle with whipped butter and maple syrup was good. But the fried chicken wings, which were breaded, could have used more seasoning.
Vegetarians won't be the only fans of Veggie Benedict ($13), a nutty whole-wheat English muffin topped with poached egg, sauteed veggies (zucchini and squash recently) and Hollandaise.
The strawberry-mango parfait that came with it was a hit with the adult who ordered it, but an even bigger hit with her 7-year-old daughter.
The contrast among staff uniforms - bow-tied bartenders versus servers in logo t-shirts - can be seen as a metaphor for the Five experience. The bartender uniform shows how the restaurant wants to be taken seriously, while the server uniform reflects a studied hip vibe.
To some customers, pricey entrees will be less appealing when delivered by someone in a t-shirt. But when Five is in full swing, many patrons will be having too much fun to notice. Eric Velasco is a staff writer for The Birmingham News.
AMBIENCE Visual feast, hip atmosphere Hours: Monday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. -2 a.m.; Sunday brunch, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Prices: Appetizers, $6-$11; entrees, $13-$24; nightly specials, $12-$27; brunch, $12-$13. Alcohol: Cocktails, beer, wine Credit cards: Yes Personal checks: No Reservations: No Health Department rating: Not yet rated DETAILS Address: 744 29th St. South Phone: 868-3841 Rating: Three out of five stars Hours: Monday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. -2 a.m.; Sunday brunch, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Prices: Appetizers, $6-$11; entrees, $13-$24; nightly specials, $12-$27; brunch, $12-$13 Alcohol: Cocktails, beer, wine Credit cards: Yes Reservations: No