I recently had the opportunity to visit Render South Bend, a shared plate, Asian-influenced restaurant that brings much-needed diversity and originality to the South Bend dining scene. Chef de Cuisine Brendan Barry has crafted a menu that varies regularly based on what’s in-season and locally available. Render’s distinctive atmosphere and standout dishes make it a must-visit destination in South Bend.
The Atmosphere: The stylish and well-appointed decore is up-scale for South Bend. Paintings of Quentin Tarantino movie characters adorn the walls. The space feels like it belongs in a trendy part of New York City, and while seating is limited, the intimate atmosphere is perfect for a casual dining experience.
The Food: Render offers a range of small and large plates meant to be shared family-style. Don’t miss the Bao, Asian buns filled with either mushroom or chicken; absolutely a must-have standout dish. Other memorable dishes include a perfectly cooked medium-rare salmon and a flavorful pork fried rice. While some dishes, like the Thai lettuce wraps and crab cake, could benefit from a little extra attention to detail, the overall quality of the food at Render is impressive. The menu varies regularly depending on what’s in-season and locally available. They do special dinners weekly. Check their Facebook page or Web site for updates on special dinner events. Dinner events follow a theme. For example, recent dinner events have included a Ramen night and a Spanish wine night. It feels a bit inspired by Alice Waters/Chez Panisse, where the idea is to vary the menu with whatever is fresh/available that day but done in the local chef’s style. Food comes out one dish at a time when the kitchen finishes making it. It’s a relatively casual experience.
The Experience: During my visit to Render, I noticed that the restaurant paid careful attention to style and design. However, a few aspects seemed out of place, such as the traditional map of cow cuts on the restaurant’s end wall, which feels more appropriate for a steakhouse. Despite being a Saturday night, the restaurant was nearly empty. Patrons occupied three tables (one 4-top and three 3-two-tops) when we arrived. In the 1.5 hours we were there, another 4-top came. That would make five tables for the evening. The place deserves better, and I think they need to define themselves better to encourage more traffic. I’ll say more about that in “The Future” below. The dishes were served one at a time as they were completed by the kitchen, adding to the casual, relaxed atmosphere.
We began our meal with Thai lettuce wraps. The chicken filling was dry. It felt like this was a pre-prepared item from the refrigerator. I understand the need to prep and have menu items that don’t require much real-time work, but Chef Barry could have executed this better. The lettuce cups themselves were perfect, indicating that someone was paying attention. If you’re going to serve these, make sure the filling is fresh and perhaps serve them with a side of the sauce so we can dip/season to taste.
Interestingly, the place has a total lack of condiments and side sauces. I don’t believe we even had salt and pepper on the table. I don’t know if that’s an intended statement, but it seems to be missing an opportunity.
Next, we enjoyed the exquisite Bao, featuring both mushroom and chicken filling, and folded a bit like a taco instead of the traditional Asian bin-style. The filling options vary from night to night, depending on what’s fresh. There were two options that night, mushroom and chicken. Both were exquisite. At one point, we considered ordering another round of them. The waitress told us they are the “go-to” item for the staff. They are a must-have when you dine here.
The following crab cake felt underwhelming, like a return to the lettuce wraps. The execution was better, but again it felt like a pre-prepared menu filler item. And once again- the lack of condiments was visible. At least give us a chipotle aioli to add some flavor to an otherwise mundane crabcake.
Next came the perfectly cooked medium-rare salmon and pork fried rice that would make Uncle Roger proud. Each dish was an experience showcasing the kitchen’s skill and creativity. We were back to food cooked in real-time in the kitchen.
The Future: To help Render reach its full potential, the restaurant should focus on its unique Asian-American fusion concept and confidently embrace its identity. By expanding the menu with more Bao and fried rice options, simplifying the kitchen, and offering condiments and sauces to enhance the dining experience, Render can further distinguish itself in the South Bend dining scene.
The online branding is confusing, probably because the place seems to have re-opened with a different theme. You can still find references to “Render Meat and Potatoes” online. Decide that you’re going to be an Asian-American fusion tapas-style restaurant. Double down on what fits, and be OK with letting go of what doesn’t. Be upfront, loud, and bold about that. The “About” section of the website is too generic. “The Render team is focused on your experience, from the first bite of delicious food to our thoughtful cocktails. We want to provide a sense of comfort, yet excitement, with every visit. Our creative dishes will resonate with a palette of seasonal ingredients, while remaining approachable & filling. “I have no idea what to expect from that. Tell us what’s unique about your style of food. Be explicit: “Render is an Asian-American fusion restaurant that serves shared plates tapas style. We serve Asian dishes such as pork bao buns in an American style. We believe in farm-to-table, and parts of our menu change daily depending on what is fresh and available. Expect a casual environment, where great food comes out freshly prepared from the kitchen as it’s ready to share family style at your table.”
Get rid of the cow cuts-of-meat picture. For the menu, remove the current lettuce wraps, and offer a traditional bao bun and a lettuce wrap. Same filling, different styles: one with a bun, with lettuce. That’s easy for the cooks to execute and doubles down on your strengths. Add one or two bun-filling options depending on what’s available. For example, if you have salmon on the menu, add a salmon bao (or lettuce wrap). Likewise, you have a New York strip on the menu, so make a steak bao/lettuce wrap available. Similar ingredients served differently expand the menu but help simplify the kitchen.
Another way to expand the menu is fried rice. Pork and rabbit were the two options for us, but why not options such as mushroom (we already have the mushroom bao) and steak? Imagine the menu with four types of Bao, with lettuce cups as an option, and four types of fried rice. Suddenly the menu feels more extensive with more variety, but you don’t need to stock additional ingredients, and the kitchen is not more complicated. You double down on what’s good and what makes you unique.
Finally, condiments and sauces are OK. Make your customers feel they have some control over the level of spiciness, salt, and flavor with some dipping sauces. If you keep the crabcakes, give them a set of dipping sauces to add uniqueness. I understand that if food is prepared right, one shouldn’t need added salt or pepper, but tastes vary. Let your customer feel they are in more control.
The Bottom Line: If you’re looking for a dining experience that stands out from the usual fare in South Bend, Render is worth a visit. Chef Brendan Barry’s unique Asian-influenced style is bringing much-needed diversity to the area, and with some work and focus, Render could become one of the top dining destinations in South Bend. Don’t miss out on the chance to experience this gem before it gets crowded.