Sam Etheridge has received quite a buzz leading up to Nob Hill Bar and Grill’s opening. Phrases like “upscale, gourmet twist” were employed, and new, exciting food was promised. Etheridge closed his revered Ambrozia Café and Wine Bar to work on it. In total, rumors and speculation about menu and ambience dominated the local blogosphere for nearly a year.
In light of all the hype, many couldn’t help but wonder if the restaurant would live up to the considerable expectations generated by press releases and Etheridge’s die-hard fans. The answer? Well, yes and no.
Etheridge nailed the ambience. Dark wood, leather and modern touches abound in a contemporary environment that, although meticulously planned, manages to come across as effortless. Cushy booths provide a degree of intimacy, while tables and a large patio give a little more visibility for those simply wishing to be seen.
The bar is easily the highlight. More wood and leather coupled with ball-game portals (that'd be big-screen TVs) make it clear that this space is for women and men who are man enough to hang.
What makes Etheridge’s bar stand out from the multitude of watering holes this city has to offer is the drink menu. Aside from a respectable wine list and a hefty imported beer menu, Nob Hill puts forth something rather adventurous. Its cocktails don’t just take the edge off; they re-examine how mixed drinks are approached.
As rules go, food and drink pairings aren’t new. This wine goes with this dish, this beer complements this meal, and so on. But food usually comes on a plate and drink in a glass. Nob Hill abandons that arrangement and pairs the two in a single vessel. It's not a foreign idea. Drinks are often dressed with all manner of garnish that blur the line between cocktails and crudités. Nob Hill goes a step further, however, and challenges the notion of simply adorning a drink with fruits and veggies. Here, garnish is more than decoration; it becomes an inseparable component of the drinking experience, one that invites ingredients like curry and lemongrass to the mix.
The Caipiroska cooler turns an ordinary vodka cocktail into a crisp and surprising beverage. Mixed with lime and ginger, it seems ordinary enough at first. Then you notice delicate cucumber slices snuggling up to your ice cubes. The cukes add volumes of aromatic properties and an enticing coolness to the drink. In contrast to the cucumber, ginger steps in with a hot bite. I've never come across such a provocative tonic. These are not drinks to get you drunk physically, but to intoxicate all the senses.
Enchanted as I was with the bar side of the operation, I was less captivated by the restaurant. The service disappointed almost absolutely. Plates piled up, and neglect was the name of the game during my visits. On one occasion, I ordered a requisite after-dinner shot of espresso. My server, who thank god was damn good-looking, simply handed me a cup. No saucer, no spoon, no sugar. And close to no espresso. The demitasse mug was filled with just a sliver of strong brew. Although the mistake was quickly corrected, it came on the heels of so many gaffes that my supply of forgiveness was depleted. One exception to the slipshod service was brunch. It's a serve-yourself affair, but my server was always on hand to clear dishes and refill drinks.
On the entrée menu, Etheridge's trademark experimentation seems out of balance. Gourmet items show up on plates with otherwise pedestrian components in ways that, in contrast to his last restaurant, lack rhyme or reason. The "Dirty Burger" is a prime example. Made from American "Kobe," this luxury brand of Wagyu beef is renowned for its sweet, buttery meat and succulent fat marbling. But the fine texture and flavor is totally obscured by smoked bacon, foie gras, guacamole, frizzled onions, fried egg, grilled mushrooms, and green and red chile—all of them at once. There's no case made for the Wagyu cow's status as beef nobility. The impetus to order it is to say you’ve eaten it.
In a similar fashion, many dishes let ideas take a front seat to execution. There are bright spots, however, when the attention drifts back to detail, especially at the hands of the pastry chef. The croissants were divine and the truffles were perfect.
If dinner's not on the agenda, and you’re just looking to grab a nibble with a drink, the appetizers deliver upscale bar food as promised. Tuna nachos are a fun take on tuna tartar. Several other bar favorites make an appearance as dressed-up and somewhat reinvented bites. That may be the way to go here. Etheridge’s latest venture misses the mark in some aspects but delivers on others. Dinner's not down pat yet; but afterward, for a contemporary spot to wet your whistle without having to rub elbows with the beer-in-a-can crowd, you can’t go wrong in this handsome gastrobar.
The Alibi recommends:
• Tuna nachos
• Croissants (at brunch)
• Mixed drinks
Nob Hill Bar and Grill, 3128 Central SE, 266-4455. Hours: Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Bar open late. Ambience: manly and slick. Dinner price range: $9 (black bean burger) to $25 (New York strip). Booze, credit cards, large parties, Sunday brunch ($20), reservations.