Augusta proper is ripe for an excellent restaurant, don’t you think? Not necessarily something fancy-schmancy or hipster-dipster. The state capital simply needs a distinctive eatery. Some place where, if you tell someone in the know you’re going to Augusta, they answer with a “Oh, then you must eat at …”
Until that happens, there is Cloud 9 at the Senator Inn. Fine, but not a place you’ll rave about to all your friends.
What stood out about our Saturday night in early December at this restaurant located in a hotel and spa complex is how welcome we felt. Hospitality bubbled from every staff member. There’s a lot to be said for that.
This hotel-based eatery is located adjacent to the highway exit. On an early December Saturday, the high-capacity dining room was nearly full at 7 p.m. Our waiter, enthusiastic and amiable, told us that guest numbers can be unpredictable. Sometimes the space will fill up on a Monday night, state legislators taking in a meal. Sometimes it’s slower, like when we left at about 8:30 that evening. Augusta is not a late-night town.
The Cloud 9 menu has many choices meant to appeal to a broad clientele: Nine salads not counting the salad bar, 11 pizza choices (everything from pepperoni to a Maine lobster, scallion and roasted nori for $17.95; and yes, they do take-out), 10 seafood entrees, burgers, steaks, a vegetarian entree, and middle-brow appetizers like hot wings, baked brie and fried calamari.
We sampled a soup, salad, three entrees and a dessert. Corn chowder was the soup of the day ($4.95) — chunky, smoky and sweet, a delicious comfort-food starter, something I’d have weekly in the winter if I could.
The salad bar held standard issue fare, with one exception — fabulous marinated carrots that tasted tangy and sharp. The salad bar is $5.95 with entree or $11.95 on its own. The bread bar deserves high praise for its selection of house-made breads, including an excellent crusty and Mediterranean zatar-spiced flatbread, foccacia, whole wheat loaf and miniature cinnamon rolls.
Pan-seared, sesame-crusted tuna ($24.95) was entirely coated in seeds, the sizeable slice of fish not quite as luscious as it could be, cooked through and thus losing some moisture. Ponzu dipping sauce helped. A side of wild and brown rice was unexciting, but an appealing stack of asparagus joined it, the spears bright, slim, al dente.
Two jumbo stuffed shrimp kept company with a petite filet mignon on a land-and-sea platter ($25.95 for the smaller portion). Delicious, moist and bready stuffing with flecks of lobster and scallops overflowed the curls of two gigantic shrimp, cooked to firm. The steak was acceptable, slightly unevenly cooked and tepid upon arrival. Two undistinguished sauces, mushroom Bordelaise and Bearnaise, were served in small plastic side dishes.
Butternut squash, Swiss chard with caramelized onions, roasted red peppers and melted gorgonzola cheese are tasty ingredients on their own, but as a vegetarian medley, served here with brown rice, it fell short of delicious coherence. The gorgonzola was the alpha item in the mix and did not allow the vegetables to stand on their own ($15.95).
The side salad was no ordinary bowl of expected standbys, but instead mesclun greens with glazed walnuts, strawberries and blue cheese coated with a housemade ginger/orange dressing ($5.95 with entree). The components were fresh and well-prepared, but the ginger-based dressing seemed out of place. Again, too much competition on the plate.
From a long and varied dessert list (there is also a dessert cart to give the visual, but we missed it) we chose a raspberry cloud. A crispy meringue ring ($8) held whipped cream studded with fresh berries and lightly drizzled with chocolate. It was pretty, big enough for two and initially intriguing, but like many dishes here, it didn’t hold our excitement.
Our fast-moving server (two wait staff had called in sick) managed to get to all his tables in a timely way and remained cheerful and accommodating each time we hailed him to ask for something new. Impressive.
The atmosphere at Cloud 9, a colorful, large space broken into sections, is eclectic and comfortable. We sat at a table a few steps down from the salad bar in an area that seemed designed to impart a piazza feel: Tiles, orange pendants, a fascinating tree mosaic and a brick oven. On the upper level are contemporary, plush booths plus tables, chandeliers, and small columns that echo the logo of the mother ship, the Senator Inn.
If the weather outside is frightful, duck inside to find blue skies and peaceful clouds painted on the restaurant’s ceilings.
Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer. She can be reached at: