777 G Street, East Village
Block by block, the redeveloping East Village (which I nicknamed “E-Ville” when it all started) is indeed becoming a high-rise, high-priced condo neighborhood, complete with virulent NIMBYism surrounding the remnants of its former identity, including the old, the poor, and the substance-ridden. And every up-and-coming neighborhood needs neighborhood restaurants. “Neighborhood” is a new brew pub that features burgers, but it’s too ambitious to be called a burger joint — yet too funky for a NIMBY label to stick. If Café Chloe is fundamentally feminine and upscale-boho, then Neighborhood is its prole-chic masculine counterpart. Entrée prices may shade a buck or two out of “cheap” range, but the clientele and ambience are more pub scene than plutocratic, more bohemian than big bucks. With the restaurant’s late hours, a lot of Gaslamp chefs show up after work to scarf up clean, decent food with no frou-frou and no formality.
Neighborhood’s deliberately perverse claim to fame is that it doesn’t serve ketchup. The hefty half-pound burgers, made with excellent beef and served on artisan rolls from Bread on Market, are available with several interesting garnishes; ditto the fries. While the kitchen is still experimenting with different cuts of beef, when I was there it was a mixture of Prime rib eye, sirloin, and chuck, all deeply flavorful cuts from corn-fed Midwestern beef. (Most burger joints use simply chuck or the leaner, less toothsome round.) Neighborhood gets this mixture from Hans-Trevor Gossman of Hamilton Meats, who used to be executive chef at the late, lamented Royale Brasserie. (Switching to the wholesale meat biz, Hans-Trevor has become the carnivore’s angel, foraging such delicacies as the Texas free-range antelope served at the Better Half.)
The innermost side of the room consists of a bar, barstools, and tall round tables with high barstools, with a non-giant TV playing sports behind the bar. At our visit, two lissome young blondes were hangin’ at the bar, but the rest of that half of the room was populated wholly by males under (or slightly over) 30, mostly in T-shirts and gimme caps. The streetside half of the room consists of about ten regular-height tables (mainly four-tops). Two were occupied by girl groups, one by two couples, the rest by more males around 30, bonding over burgers. Some nights, it’s families instead — what could be more kid-friendly than this menu? Music plays excruciatingly loudly, forcing all conversations into shouting mode — the decibel level approaches that of the late Region. I think I recognized Blondie singing “I’m gonna gitcha, gitcha” at one point, but for all I know it could have been a cover. Even my youngest friends are a few years past the demographic here, and by the end of the evening we were talking about coming back some night wearing our gun-range earmuffs. (I envision bursting into this modern-day saloon like black-clad Barbara Stanwyck and her all-male posse in Sam Fuller’s great Forty Guns — but all wearing earmuffs — and going Richard Thompson’s “Shoot Out the Lights” one better by unleashing a volley at the sound system.)
By the time you read this, however, the sound may be partly tamed. “We’re sort of using the music to drown out the voices,” says owner Arsalun Tafazoli. Parts of the restaurant are concrete, which bounces sound all over — but Arsalun has hired Paul Basile (the artist/craftsman behind the Guild Restaurant) to add sound baffles to the ceiling in April, which should help. In any case, service is terrific, and the kitchen is fast. A petite, raven-haired beauty took our order and smartly intuited from our choices and general style that we’d be eating “family style.”
Better yet, the menu ventures clear of the standard pub clichés. By any other name, it’s a gastropub! Old-time dive bars offer vats of pickled hard-boiled eggs, free to drinkers. Here instead are $5 appetizers of pink-salted deviled eggs, which include artichoke mousse in their making. They’re very good. Even better is the steak tartare appetizer, the posse’s favorite dish. The raw beef is mixed with capers, onions, and fresh tomatoes, with a partial topping (across about half) of roasted red-pepper remoulade, a rouille-like coral mayo purée. Our dish came from the kitchen predivided into four neat halved-egg mounds, a nice touch to serve a foursome. But what brought us joy was that this was a genuine tartare, not some pusillanimous scaredy-cat compromise. It featured intensely tasty and tender raw beef and zesty garnishes.
“Crispy IPA buds” (whuzzat? Idaho Potato Association?), when translated into their more understandable Spanish or Portuguese name, are croquetas — a tapa of deep-fried, lightly breaded fritters of coarsely mashed potatoes, accompanied by a smooth melted-cheddar dipping sauce with a single roasted jalapeño in the center of the ramekin. The dip is pleasant but perhaps too amiable, smooth and mild, with the barest hint of a nip from the chile. It reminded me of Stouffer’s frozen mac ’n’ cheese (which I like, for a frozen food — but not for a restaurant food). The side dish of jalapeño mac ’n’ cheese is more of the same sauce, folded around pasta. If it could sing it would croon like Bing Crosby. (Take out the jalapeño, it’d be Tony Bennett.)
Ricotta gnudi (pronounced “nudie,” like those old-time soft-core porn flicks featuring topless volleyball players) were a disappointment. Gnudi are ravioli without wrappings — just the filling, ma’am. At their best (e.g., at the Del’s 1500 Ocean) they’re poufs of ricotta and herbs light enough to float away on the breeze like dandelions. Although Neighborhood’s chef, Jesse Cruz, was a sous-chef in 1500 Ocean’s kitchen, his version is heavy, glutinous, and sticky, further weighed down by a sweet glaze that doesn’t match the menu’s designation of a brown-butter sage glaze. With just a slight push further toward sweetness, they could become a dessert of miniature cheesecake volleyballs.
We chose a second round of appetizers and sides to accompany our entrées. A likable roasted red-and-golden-beet salad featured spring mix in a tasty citrus vinaigrette interspersed with the sliced roots. At the edge of the plate was an ethereal goat-cheese mousse, mixed with cream to smooth out all its caprine edges. There are four other elaborate salads (Bibb lettuce wedge, strawberry-spinach, drunken pear, and a delicious-sounding Cobb), and while none are groundbreaking, they are all tempting.