I couldn't help but marvel at the transformation that took place in the Courtyard by Marriott's restaurant space downtown on South Harrison Street.
The look of the new Conner's Kitchen + Bar is a drastic change from its predecessor, Champions Sports Bar. Whereas the latter was rather stale and corporate, save for some token local sports photos, Conner's looks like the kind of place you will seek out instead of the kind of place unadventurous hotel customers settle on.
Its modern approach features copper light fixtures, modern artwork and two styles of tables – the four-tops had wooden, heavily padded, orange and brown chairs and tables that had sort of a 1970s vintage vibe, while the two-tops were black metal and much more sleek and modern. The bar, with its globe lamps overhead, was the centerpiece, and it was stunning.
The menu has gone through a transformation as well. Conner's has a streamlined, focused menu that I would not expect from a hotel eatery. The mix is diverse, with touches of Latin and southern fare.
By far the best item I had was something I didn't expect to find at such an upscale-looking place, much less fall in love with there.
The southern fried chicken was good ol' bone-in bird with a thick, crunchy breading that was beautifully fried. That well-seasoned breading brought a ton of flavor, and the meat inside was moist and juicy. But if that wasn't enough, a little pitcher on the side was filled with a “hot honey drizzle.” That delectable sweet-spicy concoction – just a little was all I needed – took the bird to new heights.
The mashed potatoes on the side were a good attempt at homemade, but I fear they were either pre-made or a mix of instant and real. The tasty chicken gravy, however, hid that flaw nicely.
The coleslaw also fell flat as it was oddly dry and brought nothing interesting to the plate. But this dish was still a winner thanks to that wonderful chicken.
Sticking to the southern theme, I also loved the cornbread muffins from the appetizer section. Served with whipped honey butter, the bread was a little dark and crispy around the edges while the rest of the cake was moist and held together without crumbling. It was pretty standard, well-executed cornbread, but there is nothing wrong with that.
I was eager to try the Lump Crab Hushpuppies, which also included sweet corn, jalapeņo and pepper jack cheese. However, those ingredients were the problem. The puppies were very sweet and had a nice flavor, and the citrus aioli for dipping was nice, but I struggled to detect the crab, which is what made me so eager to order them in the first place.
One of the best appetizer options was not an appetizer at all. The Quinoa and Vegetable Chili was listed as a main course and was a great lunch option, but this tortilla-chip dipper had appetizer written all over it. The chili itself was fantastic with a proper rich, hearty, slightly spicy flavor profile. The addition of diced avocados and tomatoes, chopped greens, finely grated Oaxaca cheese and a delicious lime crema on top made it wonderfully diverse in texture and flavor.
It was not designated as being vegan or vegetarian, though I assume it was. Regardless, it was amazing.
The double cheeseburger was pretty amazing, too. The brisket blend used to produce it packed a beefy flavor punch and had just the right mix of fat to make it juicy. Go ahead and add that thick-cut, peppered bacon for No. 3 because it was wonderful. What I loved most about the burger was the simple pickle-onion-lettuce-American cheese makeup with just a little “secret sauce” to round it out.
The Loaded BBQ Pulled Pork Nachos were not quite amazing, but they, too, were worth trying. The same rather mundane tortilla chips were loaded with tender, juicy pork, creamy queso sauce, black beans, pico de gallo and giant scoops of guacamole and sour cream. But it was the fiery little red pepper rings that were the secret to this starter.
There was no description of the peppers, but I think they were just simple chiles. Whatever they were, they were great – and easy to avoid if the heat is not to your liking.
There were a couple of dishes at Conner's that represented the kind of boring, blah dishes many hotel restaurants offer.
The roasted chicken sandwich was your basic processed cold meat concoction with slaw, pepper jack cheese and guacamole. The chicken had zero flavor and not much texture, so the slaw and guacamole were all I could taste.
And the grilled filet mignon was flat-out boring. It was a below-average cut of beef, and even its garlic butter was bad as if it was made from garlic powder instead of fresh garlic.
There was nothing bad about the service. Not only was it flawless, one server and a bartender went out of their way to make my dinner visit wonderful. After I ordered the daily special watermelon margarita and found it rancid, my server quickly replaced it with a different cocktail – a spectacular blackberry sidecar – and she returned later with another round on the house, a new watermelon margarita the bartender mixed up fresh with different ingredients that was also wonderful.
I also had no complaints about the Gooey Butter Cake, which was warm, gooey, of course, and oh so buttery. There wasn't a lot of complexity, it was just moist yummy cake in a hot, cast iron crock with a scoop of melting ice cream on top.
Restaurant: Conner's Kitchen + Bar
Address: 1550 Harrison St.
Hours: 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 6 a.m. to midnight Friday; 7 a.m. to midnight Saturday; 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Hush puppies ($11), pork nachos ($8 half; $14 full), cornbread ($4.50 for 3; $7 for 5), fried chicken ($14 lunch; $18 dinner), filet ($29), chili ($15), butter cake ($7)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★★ (3-star maximum); atmosphere: ★ (1 maximum), service: ★ (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at email@example.com; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
Conner's Kitchen + Bar
Out of a possible five