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Idaho potato fries are herbed shoestrings with a light garlic-mayo dip. We loved the slim airy fries but could have done without the dip. Jonathan (a posse newcomer), purposely provocative, asked for the taboo ketchup. This proved a brilliant move: The waitress brought a full assortment of about five house dips instead. Fred’s favorite was the rich sun-dried tomato purée. Mine was a coral “Cajun” mayo, slightly spicy. I couldn’t hear which ones Jonathan and Jim liked.

Sweet potato fries are flawless as is, lightly dusted with crumbs of blue cheese. They come with a superfluous pepper malt vinaigrette, which we tasted but abandoned once we’d received the wider array to play with. But really, they didn’t need any dip. Perfect is perfect. Onion rings, on the other hand, were weighed down by a heavy breadcrumb batter. Good rings can fool you into thinking you’re not loading up on fat and calories. These — every bite yelled “Grease!” (By the time you read this, the recipe may have changed.)

The moment I looked at the menu, I was set on the 777 Burger, garnished with organic spinach, plum-tomato confit, and béarnaise sauce. I ordered the meat rare, and so it arrived. The artisan rolls that cradle the burgers are admirable as craftworks but so thick it’s hard to taste the meat inside them. I removed the top of the roll and dug in with knife and fork. The beef and raw spinach were good, but — where was the béarnaise? Send in the béarnaise! Subsequent tasters detected something resembling Swiss cheese. Well, there’s no cheese in béarnaise, so that must have been the sauce. Tasting the leftover half-burger, cold and naked the next day, revealed that wonderfully beefy beef, and I have no beef with that!

The burger that did have Swiss was Jonathan’s mushroom-marsala burger, medium-rare. He, too, flipped the top half of the roll off his meat in search of flavor, but the subtleties of the garnishes were still lost. Maybe it wasn’t the food but the noise, which makes it really hard to hear your food talking to you.

When an entrée of poached mussels wasn’t available that night, Fred, who’s a vegetarian-sympathizer, voted in favor of the fresh roasted vegetable sandwich, with portobello mushroom, red pepper, zucchini, garlic hummus, and mozzarella. Well, it didn’t taste exactly like all of that. The main problem was that the portobello may have been a day past prime — slightly bitter, slightly tough, rather dry. It was better in theory than in the mouth. No evidence of hummus either. (Could have been a thin layer on the uneaten top half of the bun. Maybe the bun ate my béarnaise as well.) Completing our array was Jim’s entrée of stone-smoked, porter-braised beef ribs (named for the brew in which they’re cooked). They were tender but also very fatty. The sauce was too simple and bland to highlight the flavors of the meat, and the ample fat deposits were a bit gross.

The other burger choices that we didn’t try are the signature Neighborhood Burger with caramelized onions, blue Gruyère, and peppered greens, and a spicy Cajun-rubbed burger, which brings to mind the awful image: “Eh, Fontenot! Park that pirogue, c’mere and rub my burger!” Eesh. We also skipped a veggie burger, a kosher hot dog with kraut, and a grilled-cheese sandwich with tomato bisque — and there’s your whole main-dish menu.

We didn’t ask what sweets might be available, beyond the delectable Bonny Doone Vin de Glacière on the wine menu. I mean, even the youngest of my posse is staring 40 in the eye. (We grow old, we grow old, shall we wear the bottoms of our Levis rolled?) Should Norah Jones set T.S. Eliot to music, we might listen happily. But we fled. It turns out no desserts were available yet. They’re just coming to the menu now — a few simple, housemade sweets designed to go with local craft beers.

I appreciated the care taken to serve some interesting variations on pub grub, the creative thrust of the cooking, and quality ingredients — and the service, the speed, the good wine list, and the great beer list. But in the end, despite the joys of the steak tartare and sweet potato fries, the 12 dishes we tasted barely made the 2.5 rating. And until the sound baffles are up, I wouldn’t return without wearing those target-shooting earmuffs. On the other hand, as my generation used to say, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” (Now, we’ve reversed that to “under 30.”) So if you’re of an age to love ear-splitting rock and you regard baroque burgers and fancy fries as the crowns of culinary creation — or if you’ve got kids who do — don’t trust me. Neighborhood’s your neighborhood.

ABOUT THE OWNER

Arsalun Tafazoli is the 26-year-old owner of Neighborhood. That sonorous name is Turkish, but his parents, of Persian-Italian ancestry, are British, and Arsalun grew up in San Diego. He majored in political science and economics at UCSD, thinking he’d go into law, until some of his older friends scored fabulous jobs at top law firms and nearly died of boredom and loathing. “I thought, if I’m gonna get myself in so much debt, might as well do something enjoyable.

“I love the bar culture. I had an overseas scholarship in Hong Kong, then going to Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, and coming back via Spain — there are so many places that are so intimate and comfortable and conducive to conversations, yet good. It’s so different than down here. In college I supported myself by working in restaurants and bars, but there, it was a completely different culture — so simple, but so comfortable, with food and good people. I wanted to create a space like that where, however you’re dressed, you can feel comfortable and have good food and good conversation.” In Hong Kong, he was a big fan of the famous Aussie bar a block or so behind the Peninsula Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, where instead of TV, a singer-pianist unites the crowd into happy, sing-along community.

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downtowncc May 6, 2008 @ 11:27 a.m.

What I love about Neighborhood - it is unique in presenting delicious, interesting, and sensual meals beautifully and with great attention to detail. The service is as gracious as one would expect for an honored guest in your own home. We can actually have a conversation and hear each other speaking. AND - the sweet potato fries and cucumber water are not to be missed.

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