Ken Leighton 3:30 p.m., Feb. 15
Eating at Small Bar
It's not my intention to disagree with other writers about the quality of certain restaurants. All things being equal, I find that opinions tend to converge. However, when experiences differ sharply, I think it's worthwhile to point that out and ask "why?" Case in point: Barbarella wrote about the food at Small Bar--the craft beer spot in University Heights that's been open for a couple of years now--with naught but positive things to say. And she's probably not wrong. Our experiences there, however, differ greatly.
My most recent trip to Small Bar was on a Sunday, which afforded me access to the absolutely killer Bloody Mary that the bartenders mix up there. The monster of a cocktail has a thick slab of bacon sitting in it, as well as a skewer of pickled vegetables and cocktail shrimp. It's spicy, strong, and totally over the top. In other words, a perfect cocktail for a Sunday.
The rest of Small Bar's mixology is pretty on point too. The selection of rye and bourbon whiskey is stellar. You can pay huge amounts of money on Scotch, and it will be delicious. The tap list, while not quite as finely appointed as some other spots uptown, is both lengthy and interesting. Basically, as far as drinking is concerned, Small Bar has booze and brews on lockdown.
But the food, the food has always left me hanging.
Maybe I've just been unlucky, coming in on off days and hours. I'd be willing to accept that. But I've been going there since the place opened, and I've always felt the food didn't meet the expectation set by the drinks. It's not that it's bad, per se, just not good enough.
Case in point. I ordered some fish 'n' chips the other day and I found the fish reminiscent of fish-sticks in that it was more batter than fish at some points. The fries lacked luster as well, being slightly under-fried and pale. The best part of the dish was the remoulade sauce, which was strongly flavored with dill and a novelty on fried fish.
An order of the mac 'n' cheese proved similarly middle-of-the-road. The Guinness Bechamel sauce that bound the pasta was silky smooth, at least, although it would have been better labelled "Mornay sauce" since cheese had been added. Minor linguistic gaffs aside, the pasta was a little too beer flavored and sloppily assembled, as though mixing up one's own macaroni is a task best left to the restaurant guest. The bacon and cherry tomatoes on top had redemptive potential, but not enough to make the dish memorable.
I'll reiterate that the food isn't bad. If anything, Barbarella and I are both right and it's merely inconsistent. I really just expect better from a place that sells rare, top-shelf liquor and expensive craft beer. Small Bar is a mob scene late-night, but during the earlier hours it can be pretty sedate. Considering that tables aren't totally out of the question, the restaurant end of the business could probably distinguish itself with a bit more refinement. Not that it needs to--alcohol sales pay the bills at the end of the day--but I think they could do solid favor to hungry drinkers.
I'd still go back on weekends, even if just for that Bloody!