Justin O'Connell 4:30 p.m., Feb. 10
First Look at Uptown Tavern
Sister to the West Coast Tavern, Uptown is now open for business where Ono Sushi was. Brandon Hernandez labelled the project "ambitious" early on, and the remodel seems to bear that fact out. Gone is the dark, club-y, borderline labyrinthine sushi bar. The new look is much more open and spare. Vintage-look murals cover the walls and there's a faux worn-in feel about the place that's not overdone.
The scene was interesting; a sort of hodgepodge of Hillcrest gay and North Park hip that ultimately just means the stereo pumps out some pretty sweet jams.
As of yesterday, the menu was only partially available, but there was more than enough food to get a feel for how the complete dining experience will play out. Described as "salty and sweet," the whole menu borrows West Coast's "small plates" method of portioning control and service. Much like at West Coast, it was unclear exactly how much food to order. If the menu has a real failing, it's that it isn't very approachable and it's tough to guess exactly what you're going to get when the food hits the table.
3-6PM happy hour pricing creates a selection of appetizers for $5, well drinks for $3, and beer and wine for $4. An order of five-spice wings, normally $9, contained a solid pound of chicken wings. Curiously petite, some wings were only an inch and a half long, the unmistakeable "spicy licorice" zing of five-spice powder underlined a sweet n' sour style wing sauce that hinted coyly at food court Chinese food without actually descending to those depths.
Something happened at Uptown that happens all to frequently. I ordered a Martini and, instead of receiving the $3 version made with no-name gin, I got a suspiciously delicious cocktail that ended up costing me more than twice as much. I would have been fine with the well liquor, in fact I wanted to try it out, and see how well the bartender could dress up cheezy booze, but it seems like I received expensive alcohol that I didn't request. I should have to ask for good booze to avoid the well liquor, not the other way around.
That was the most major gaff and far from damning for such a new place. Almost as compensation, the house chardonnay was great for just a couple dollars!
Vegetable sliders ($9.50) featured quinoa patties between chewy bread, almost a brioche. Two, little sandwiches for that price isn't exactly a meal, but the South American pseudo-cereal is more filling than it ought to be and the vegetarian croquettes filled the sandwiches admirably.
An order of cornbread ($6) stole the show. It was covered in cheesy and griddled to a crisp around the edges. Topped with compound butter and a served with a small ramekin of apple butter (that could have been given out by the gallon), the bread had just the right amount of embellishment to set it apart from the masses without reeking of excess.
Uptown's Nicoise salad ($12.50) didn't shatter convention in any way. It was modest in proportion, but the nicely cooked potatoes, sliced eggs, tuna, and crispy green beans gave it plenty of substance and the welcome zing of twin caper berries put a sharp note on what was an otherwise reserved salad.
For dessert, a peaches and cream cup ($6) was novel. Basically a mason jar filled with sweet, whipped mousse and cooked peaches, the dish was sweet enough to threaten even the most intrepid pancreas. Augmenting it with a waffle, always available as a side dish, was a totally worthwhile endeavor. It's a bit unusual, but being able to add a waffle to any dinner is a fun touch.
Uptown's full menu should be available soon and a grand opening event is in the works.
1236 University Ave
Kitchen open until 1
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