‘This is how you make a decent cocktail,” says Doug. He sneaks out a nubbly silver pocket flask, opens it, then slides his glass of whiskey sour under the counter and starts secretly pouring bourbon from the flask to top up his creamy cocktail. You’d think we were in a speakeasy. He snaps the cap closed, puts it into his back pocket, checks for snoopy waiters, then brings his glass back up for a sip.
“Ahh... Now that’s a cocktail.”
He looks at the egg-white foam topping his Evan Williams whiskey-sour cocktail, and the stain where he poured his li’l personal add. “I get all-expenses-paid meals wherever I travel, and I travel a lot. Half the cocktails you get are watery crap, so you’ve got to come prepared.”
I had come into this hyper-cool Ironside eatery just before six. Knew the only way I could afford it was to hit happy hour.
“Eight minutes left,” says the welcome gal. The place is, well, eclectic. They’ve left the outside stripped down to its faded, ancient concrete façade from its original role as a furniture salesroom. Sign along the roof reads: “A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats.”
I head for the bar for quicker service. “You’ll be fine,” says the bar guy. Hands me the happy-hour menu. Six items: oysters, which are usually $3.30 each, go for a dollar. The most expensive HH item is rockfish ceviche for $11. You get habanero, coconut milk, and cucumber with it.
Then, for six bucks, chowder fries with pork, potato, and clams. A cup of clam chowder, also with pork and potato and cheddar biscuits, is $4, and a green salad’s $4, too. Oh, and “hand-cut fries” on their own are $2. I mean, not the greatest selection in the world, and 11 bucks for the ceviche? I count myself lucky I can order the chowder fries and the green salad as well for $10.
Of course, they have a huge regular menu. An Ironside Platter of six oysters, 10 shrimp, and eight mussels, goes for...uh, $54. The bigger size, for two to four people, is $89; that gets you 12 oysters, 14 shrimp, 14 mussels, and a half-pound Maine lobster. “Biggest,” for three to six people, is $141, and beyond that? The “Holy Shit” size, with caviar, tons of oysters, shrimp, mussels, two pounds of lobster, rockfish ceviche, and house bread, costs $420. “Small” plates, like octopus with chorizo go for $10–$18. Fish start at $21 and go to $33.
My chowder fries and salad come in blue-striped white bowls and with a cloth napkin. I also get a lemonade ($3.50). I start to nibble at the chowder fries and discover that they’re quite delicious. The pork? Almost like chorizo on top. Plus, they put a coating of chowder and chives, and somewhere in there, clams.
But my neighbor at the bar, Doug, is going all out. “I’ll have the oysters Rockefeller,” he tells the barkeep, “plus the ‘Grilled Little Gem Caesar’ salad, then the ‘swordfish, simple,’ and a whiskey sour. Got all that?”
He’s not shouting, but he is talking loud. At first I think he’s just a businessman who likes to dominate. Turns out there’s a reason.
“Actually, I’ve always been deaf in this left ear,” he says. “So, I may talk a little loud, but I’m trying to get them to speak loud back at me, so I can hear over all this echoey noise.”
First up, his creamy cocktail comes and he grabs his flask and ups the drink’s octane. Then his oysters Rockefeller — three of them in-shell ($11), with spinach, parmesan, and breadcrumbs on top.
“I’m from Colorado, conservative,” says Doug after he finishes the third. “These seemed a bit, like, strong-tasting. So, what are you having, my friend? Just fries?”
My chowder fries started off looking and smelling and tasting really interesting, with the pork and chowder. But now, further down, I guess it’s just fries left. Set against Doug’s banquet, our side’s looking kinda thin.
And then my green garden salad shows up. Looks fine, too, until Doug’s “Grilled Little Gem Caesar” salad turns up.
“Oh, my God,” he says, shifting it around with his fork. “What is that? It’s grilled. The.Salad. Has. Been. Grilled! See how the heart of romaine’s blackened? Warm salad’s not my thing.” He plays with the anchovies the slices of parmesan, the croutons. He tastes it gingerly. Then in big forkfuls. “Hey! Good. Very good. Surprising. So, how’s your salad?”
Well, fine...but, okay, no contest. It’s just a plain-Jane green salad. No grilled romaine here.
He eats fast. Now he’s onto his “simple fish” dish, two chunks of “California harpooned swordfish” with arugula greens. Really? Harpooned? Costs $23.
“Also, normally I’d be wary of swordfish,” he says, “because these are mature animals, and that means they’ll have accumulated mercury in their bodies. Not good.”
He’s done. Getting his card out. “Uh, did those fries fill you up?”
No, man. They didn’t.
He signals for the check.
It arrives, $63.57.
Still, it’s been fun watching close up how a real live expense-account diner dines.
Have to say: with gusto.
Would I come back? Sure. For that grilled Caesar salad. ’Course, César Cardini is probably turning in his grave. Guess the chef has to live with that.
1654 India Street, Little Italy
Hours: 11:30 a.m.–12 a.m. daily (till 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday)
Happy Hour Prices: Rockfish ceviche, $11; chowder fries with pork, potato, and clams, $6; cup of clam chowder, $4; green salad, $4; hand-cut fries, $2
Regular Menu Prices: Small-plate octopus with chorizo, $16.22; oysters Rockefeller (with spinach, parmesan cheese), 3 for $11, 6 for $20; grilled cauliflower, $8.09; swordfish dish, $23; thresher-shark dish, $31; fish and chips, $16.29; steamed mussels, $16.31; lobster omelet, $89; seafood platter (2–4 people), includes 6 oysters, 10 shrimp, 8 mussels, $54; “Holy Shit” size, with caviar, tons of oysters, shrimp, mussels, 2 lbs of lobster, rockfish ceviche, and house bread, $420; Grilled Little Gem Caesar Salad, $14
Nearest Bus Stops: India and Cedar (northbound); Kettner and Cedar (southbound)
Trolley: Green Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: County Center/Little Italy