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Everything at Sam Hughes Place Championship Dining looks great--but taste is a whole other story

Sam Hughes Place Championship Dining is at its heart a sports bar. It's certainly a lot fancier than most, but any place that has numerous big-screen televisions--almost always tuned to one sporting event or another--is a sports bar. There are even small TVs above the urinals in the men's room so guys won't miss a minute of the game.

You can't help but be impressed when you first walk in the main entrance off the parking lot. There's lots of polished wood and both a fun bar area and a more "formal" dining room. The bar has plenty of tall tables, some booths and a long, sleek bar. A patio lines the front wall that runs parallel to Sixth Street.

The dining room, where we had dinner on our Friday-night visit, is decked out in shades of brown. The lighting, especially above the large booths, is most complimentary. It's hip; it's clubby; it looks like a place to have a little sophisticated fun.

Even though the place was packed, we were able to get a table, and within minutes, our server placed a scoop of veggie-laced cream cheese that sported two large chunks of lavosh. It caught the eye, but upon further inspection, it was pretty bland.

We ordered drinks and appetizers from our attentive server. John ordered a Sierra Nevada ($2.50) and the beef sliders ($9), and I ordered a pinot noir ($9) and the ahi tuna ($10). We studied the menu as we munched on the appetizers. John's sliders consisted of three highly seasoned mini-burgers with what was supposed to be a "pile" of tumbleweed onions. I think the beef flavor got lost in the seasonings, but John enjoyed the sliders. "Pile" was a bit of an exaggeration as far as the onions went; there was barely a handful, and they were not anything out of the ordinary.

My seared tuna looked pretty, with a ball of rice, quite a few slices of seared tuna and a toss of vegetable slivers that had been "wasabi infused" and "drizzled with a sesame vinaigrette and spicy Chinese mustard." But all I could really taste was the wasabi. A little of this wonderful root goes a long way, and it's almost essential to have with rare tuna--but it shouldn't dominate. The Chinese mustard added more heat, and the tuna faded into the background.

For our main courses, John decided on one of the over-stuffed sandwiches, which make up a whole category on the menu. Called the dry Italian ($9), the sandwich had--again quoting the menu--"sliced cappicola and salami, provolone cheese, sun-dried tomato, roasted garlic, basil, olive oil and a balsamic reduction on crusty Italian bread." He ordered the sports-bar standby--french fries--as a side.

I ordered one of the summer specials, a full pound of roast lamb loin cooked in a raspberry mint reduction ($29). I have to admit that when I ordered it, I thought the price was $20; blame it on older eyes and some of the flattering lighting I mentioned earlier.

When dinner arrived, we wondered: Who wrote the menu? A big fan of high-powered adjectives, that's for sure. John's sandwich was hardly over-stuffed. Instead, he found a few slices of the meats and one or two slices of cheese, with the other ingredients blended into a tapenade-like mixture. And the bread was NOT crusty. The only adjective that worked in this description was "dry." The whole thing needed a good drizzle or two of olive oil. And the fries were as limp as ... I'd better stop there.

My lamb was pleasing to the eye, but disappointing in execution. While the serving was large, the lamb had no flavor itself. The dish relied entirely on the sauce, which didn't taste a bit like either raspberry or mint. When I pay nearly $30 for a meal, I want to savor every bite--that did not happen with this dish. The thin asparagus spears on the side were very good, however.

Dessert didn't meet our expectations, either. We decided to split the s'mores ($7), that wonderful campfire dessert. The dish was served hot in a little crock that had been stuffed with lots of graham crackers, marshmallows and a drizzle of chocolate. It was beautiful to behold, but lacked flavor.

Our lunch visit was on a Saturday during one of the last games of the World Cup. All the TVs were tuned to the game, but our server switched one of them over to baseball upon our request. We ordered calamari ($8), crab cakes ($11), a bottle of Heineken ($4) and a glass of chardonnay ($8.50) for starters. John had a turkey and prosciutto club sandwich ($9), and in the spirit of giving everyone a second chance, the fries again. I ordered the lobster tacos ($10).

Lunch was no better than dinner. The calamari, as with so many things at the restaurant, was artfully presented, in a paper cone with what was supposed to be a citrus aioli. The pieces were hot and crispy, but it was pretty hard to tell what was under the batter. And as far as the crab cakes, they were small, pale and not very crabby.

John's club was just a sandwich, certainly not a classic club where there are three slices of toast with all the other goodies. This sandwich was made up of thickly sliced white bread and an assortment of meats. And the fries, well, they were again limp.

My tacos looked tempting, but the undercooked lobster was drowned in the chipotle lime aioli. The promised guacamole was scarce.

Dessert was crème brulée ($5), which was supposed to be enriched with vanilla liquor. The custard was overcooked, grainy and lacked vanilla flavor. The burnt sugar topping didn't crackle.

They say you eat with your eyes first, and on that level, Sam Hughes Place Championship Dining succeeds. But when you get to the core of things, to quote many a chef, "It's about the food." And with the food, Sam Hughes Place Championship Dining falls flat.

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