Brandon Hernández 5 p.m., March 31
Specialty of the House: Quality Social
A Feast! feature in which your humble correspondent visits a restaurant and orders the specialty of the house.
Me, last Friday afternoon: "Apparently, Quality Social isn't fucking around any more."
The Wife: "What makes you say that?"
Me: "They just sent me this email."
The Wife: "Oh."
Not only that: to prove their point, they were inviting me, a person who once filled out an evaluation card for the place and so got on an email list, to eat free. Free? Free. The email continued:
"Hello again. You may have noticed we've been closed the past few days, as mentioned in this morning's Union Tribune article. Fresh faces, new attitude, an innovative organic wine program by renowned Sommelier Jason Wagner and our award winning culinary program led by nationally recognized Executive Chef Jared Van Camp has been completely revamped."
(Apparently, they were still fucking around a little bit. That second sentence would read a lot better like this: "We're featuring fresh faces, a new attitude, and an innovative organic wine program designed by renowned Sommelier Jason Wagner. Plus, our award-winning culinary program - led by nationally recognized Executive Chef Jared Van Camp - has been completely revamped." But good PR work is hard to come by, so we won't quibble further.)
The email continued: "We'd love to offer you dinner this weekend ON US! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for confirmation details and to make your reservation for dinner on Friday or Saturday." Well now: Papa likes free food. I called right up and made as late a reservation as I could for the three of us (me, The Wife, Sophia). Turns out that was 8 p.m., and with good reason. (More on that later.)
Quality Social bills itself as "A Bar. With Food." and promises "All the elements of your favorite neighborhood bar. Elevated." The restaurant - er, bar with food, sits at the corner of Sixth and F Street downtown, and the signage on the two fronts is indicative of the place's bifurcated spirit:
You know, as opposed to "Food & Drink" on the same sign - or even on the same side of the building. Inside, the story was sort of the same. One one side of the space, you had the bar (albeit with banquettes lining one wall):
And on the other side, you had a whole bunch of high marble tables and backless stools (albeit with a bar lining one wall):
A modern take on the picket fence: horizontal slats! But do good fences make good restaurants?
IT SHOULD BE NOTED that the bar in the "dining room" side of things was closed when we arrived, which made our side of the room much quieter, and more restaurant-y.
I know it made things quieter because it opened shortly before we departed, and was immediately filled with the sort of people who fill downtown bars on a Friday night (read: young, eager, carefully dressed and, in the case of the men, even more carefully unshaven). It also immediately became much louder. I'm guessing this is why 8 p.m. was the latest possible dinner reservation: at a certain point, the bar-culture side of things takes over. Mind you, I'm not complaining - just making a note of it.
As it happened, we started on the bar side while we waited for our table. I checked out the lighted alcoves in the curving, textured wall...
All the elements of your favorite chain eatery with crazy crap on the walls. Elevated.
...while The Wife ordered a Manhattan on the dry side.
She was delighted by the "attentive, cheerful, genuinely friendly" service she received in the process. "Within ninety seconds of sitting down, three different people asked if I'd been helped," she marveled. "And the bartender told me to let her know if it wasn't just right." She had to marvel pretty loudly to be heard, however - my first note on the place was THUMP THUMP.
"If no one is dancing, do you need this much bass?" I asked. "It's kind of clubbed up in here."
"I think it's more 'garage,' countered Sophia. I took her point...
...but insisted on noting the un-garage finery of the light fixtures:
Plus, how many garage-style restaurants serve a $23 beer (Jolly Pumpkin Bam Noire Farmhouse)?
Alexandria, our sweet and enthusiastic waitress, explained that we had been invited to dine for free because Quality Social is "trying to get people to pay attention to the second half of the menu." That is, beyond the fancy fries and the charcuterie/cheese goodness:
The Wife and I could each pick one app or salad, plus one entree or sandwich. (Sophia was there to observe and imbibe.) I asked Alexandria for her suggestions, (per Specialty of the House's specs). "For appetizers, the duck wings ($11). And the smoked duroc pork Cubano sandwich ($11) is really good. For entrees, actually, the grilled organic salmon with pumpkin seed pesto ($17)." The Wife ordered the spicy mexican shrimp ceviche ($9) to round things out, and we were off. Oh, except for drinks. Was there a house cocktail? "The H," said Alexandria. Very good, then. We ordered, and settled in for what turned out to be a very long wait.
The Wife could not help but contrast the delay with her experience at the bar. "We're left high and dry here - we don't even have drinks, and when people don't have drinks, they get cranky." Alexandria thanked us for our patience when she did bring the drinks, and the apps followed in short order. But then, the entrees followed in short order after the apps, well before we were ready for them.
So, the specialties. First, the good news: if you like cucumber, the H cocktail is gorgeous. Served in a highball with a slice of cucumber, it's made from cucumber-infused vodka that's spiked with St. Germain Elderflower, lime juice, and a touch of cracked pepper. Every sparkly sip radiates cucumber, but depending on what you've just put in your mouth, various other elements shine forth: the rich floral of the Elderflower, the tart of the lime, the slight heat of the pepper. Hooray! All the elements of your favorite Pimm's cup. Elevated. "It's an afternoon tea cocktail!" proclaimed Sophia.
Also great: the pulled pork Cubano sandwich, which was all the elements of your favorite Montecristo. Elevated. "This is a great bar sandwich," said The Wife - hot and heavy-duty. "The bread is cooked to a perfect brown, the pork is a little chewy, but still tender and moist, and then you've got the ham and the melted Swiss cheese..." She paused to swoon. "And the tang of the mustard. And I love the crunch of the pickle" - sliced long, and not overly briny.
Less great, but still good: the salmon. Clearly a fine piece of fish: rich to the point of decadence, and perfectly cooked. And if you closed your eyes and concentrated, you could pick out the pumpkin seed flavor in the pesto. But the accompanying roasted spaghetti squash lacked that roasty intensity of flavor, and nothing on the plate had a chance of standing up to the bed of bitter braised greens. "Every element's fine," said The Wife. "But it doesn't make a whole."
Duck wings are duck wings: greasier, thicker-skinned, and more delicious than chicken wings. (Chicken wings you eat for the coating. Here, you didn't even need the cucumber-mint raita, though it was tasty.) Maybe eat three or four and share the rest. Otherwise, they can start to drag you down.
Disappointing: the ceviche. Sweet tomato provided the biggest flavors - beating out both the shrimp and the spice on the shrimp, and blotting out any hint of citrus acidity.
By this point, the bar on our side had opened. As we filled out our surveys on the place - the price of our free meal - the crowd surged around us, and The Wife concluded, "I just don't think you can be a bar and a restaurant. I think you have to decide: which do you want to be? I'm sitting at a bar stool, eating salmon with pumpkin seed pesto, and I can't see my food because it's so dark. They're trying to put together too many elements."
With that, we headed out the door and across the street to watch people ride the mechanical bull at The Double Deuce. Cheers!
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