Jerk mahi-mahi $14
Crab cakes $9
Chicken fingers $8
Filet mignon $20
Mahi tacos $9
Expectations run high for a restaurant that dares to fill the void left by a beloved eatery, and YOLOS — the third nameplate from the family that owns Mariah's and Buckhead Café in Bowling Green, Ky. — makes a full-throttle attempt to win the hearts and pre-cinema appetites of patrons of Green Hills Grille, which closed in June 2008. The YOLOS team rightly assessed that the Achilles heel of the popular GHG was the ambiance, which never regained its warmth after the restaurant relocated from the original spot (where Nero's now sits).
So the YOLOS crew poured $1 million into the sprawling high-rent space in the strip by Regal Cinemas, reconfiguring the room into a series of dining areas that seat more than 200 combined. The split-level arrangement includes a large bar with multiple flat-screen TVs and a patio room with garage doors on the front of the building. The resulting contemporary design blends deep warm colors, oversized and playful drum lampshades and a dramatic wall of white branches reminiscent of a coral reef. The overall impression is that you are dining inside a sleek and moderately priced West Elm store, such as the one in the nearby Hill Center.
From the early December launch, YOLOS ran in impressive order. Servers were friendly, knowledgeable and efficient. Food arrived promptly, kids got crayons and coloring menus. Over three visits, we could have asked for little more — with one major exception. We wished for better food.
For a restaurant that takes its name from the carpe diem-inspired slogan You Only Live Once, YOLOS sticks awfully close to the rules, offering a menu of tried-and-true favorites from the American-food canon (burgers, shrimp and grits, Cobb salad, chicken fingers, crab cakes) as well as that eclectic chapter of the American-food canon co-opted from other global menus (panini, lettuce wraps, pasta, guacamole, fish tacos).
Along the way, we discovered a few standouts. Jerk mahi-mahi was by far the prize of our meals. Basted with warm earthy spices and grilled and branded with a caramel-colored grid, the flaky tile of fish carried a cool salsa that played bright counterpoint to the warm, succulent fish. We selected a side of baked sweet potato from the list of sautéed vegetables, rice, fries and sautéed asparagus. With a crisp brown jacket and a custardy orange core topped with cinnamon, brown sugar and butter, the sweet potato was elegantly simple and decadent, though the clunky pairing of fish and spud looked a little careless on the plate.
Blackened shrimp showed a similar deftness with seafood: six large deveined shrimp wore a delicate sandy coating of peppery spice and were cooked to the perfect pop. But when the flavorful seafood and rich drizzle of cream sauce were gone, only a monolithic pile of pale grits remained under a sprinkling of minced parsley. Mardi Gras pasta suffered the same monotony: Flavorful, delicately cooked shrimp sat on an oversized bed of under-flavored noodles, more Ash Wednesday than Fat Tuesday.
YOLOS scored high marks on the Fox Family Chicken Finger Index, with tender juicy strips of recognizable white meat ringing in at only $3. (But as far as kids' menus go, I speak on behalf of all parents when I beseech you: Please, please, please don't have a picture of a milkshake if you don't actually serve milkshakes.) The panini with turkey, ham, cheddar and bacon on grilled sourdough made for a satisfying and straightforward club sandwich, complemented by thick-cut peel-on fries whose crisp skins gave way to steaming soft insides.
But generally speaking, too many simple pleasures fell flat. The Paradise Burger leaned toward the infernal, cooked through to a dry gray — with none of the promised house-made steak sauce — and topped with dry kindling of potato sticks and a bun chargrilled on one edge to the point that we scraped it like burned toast. Paradise lost.
Guacamole with tricolored chips lacked brightness of salt or citrus. Lettuce wraps with chicken, water chestnuts and red peppers swam in icky-sweet soy syrup. Pizza crusts were soggy. Crab cakes, though filled with generous lumps of crab, were mushy and lacking in pan-fried crispness. Cobb salad with hard-boiled egg, blue cheese and bacon bits did nothing to elevate the time-worn medley, and suffered from avocados so unripe they crunched. Eggrolls stuffed with chicken, sausage, rice and beans were creative, but the large, thick packaging overwhelmed the filling, and as presented, the logs of deep-fried jambalaya evoked something vaguely scatological and far from appetizing.
And yet, despite these disappointments, we found ourselves lingering in the comfortable space well beyond the close of the meal, with other diners doing the same thing — sipping coffee or sharing oversized wedges of Galaxy Pie layered with Oreos, caramel ice cream, pecans and chocolate and caramel sauce. That pleasant hospitality was familiar and reminded us of something. Could it be that YOLOS has managed to recapture the ambiance of the original Green Hills Grille, which has so long eluded the space? Now that's something we'd be happy to see live twice.
YOLOS serves lunch and dinner daily.
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