When is a bar not a bar? That thought wandered across my mind as w and I were sitting in Beaker & Flask a couple of nights ago in the midst of what was turning into one of the most satisfying dinners we'd had in a long time. The reason for that musing was when B&F was getting started, the buzz around town was that bartending savant Kevin Ludwig was finally fulfilling his dream of opening his own place, and won't it be a cool place to grab a drink or three? That sort of chatter only increased as he pilfered (and I use that term with all due respect for the talent behind the bar) some of the best mixologists from across the city to work with him. "Oh, and he's going to have food? Yeah great, but only to soak up those killer drinks, I'm sure." I was right in there, fully expecting some creative intoxicants to come spilling across the bar, but not imagining the food would be that much of a wow factor. And the cocktails uphold their end. Pictured at left is my Dock Ellis, a heart warming blend of rye whiskey, limoncello, Dolin Blanc vermouth, Cynar, and bitters (not quite as mind bending as the inspiration for the drink's name, ex-big league pitcher Dock Ellis whose biggest claim to fame is supposedly having pitched a no hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates while peaking on LSD). Well, after last Tuesday's dinner my preconceived notions about the menu have been tossed aside like a poorly made negroni.
Turns out this guy Ben Bettinger who Kevin hired to run the kitchen is doing some creative magic of his own back in their open kitchen, at least equaling the stellar drinks that are being shaken and stirred behind the bar. Not only excellent food at outstanding prices, but generous portions on their app menu to boot. Case in point on the new menu are the Grilled Pork Cheeks (pictured above) with braised peppers, pickled octopus, and aioli which Kevin strongly suggested ordering when he and I were talking before w made her grand entrance. Not ones to ignore insider information we of course ordered it, and it did not disappoint. Perfectly grilled fork-tender pork cheeks, a much underutilized part of this remarkably delicious animal, the B&F version was piled with lightly sautéed peppers and succulent octopus, with a slash of aioli drizzled across the top. The whole was served atop a crispy piece of rustic toast, and it was fabulous. A dish worth developing a serious craving for, and a portion that would easily work as an entrée. All for a meager $9! Since we were sharing a main course, we also ordered the Fried Razor Clams ($10) with beets, frisée, and horseradish cream; and the Grilled Romaine ($7) with salsa verde and smoked feta. Again the razor clam was an eye popping portion, with a light breading, fried to a crispy golden brown, and blessedly tender as there are so many leather tough versions to be had out there. The grilled romaine salad was excellent, the piquant salsa verde dressing complimenting the slight char from the grill and the smoky feta. Really a great start (especially with a mug of hop-a-licious 60 Minute IPA from Dogfish Brewery. With all the genius cocktails to ponder, they've also got some great beers frothing out of the taps), and we giving each other that "Wow, this is some seriously good stuff" look.
Then along came our entrée, a very lovely to look at, delightful to eat Pan Seared Black Cod with mussels, chorizo, fennel, and green beans. A simple plate like this is surprisingly one of seemingly easiest things for a kitchen to screw up. Is the fish seasoned too much? Is it dry? Too much sauce? Apparently Chef Bettinger hadn't heard about those concerns, because his presentation was absolutely spot on! w declared the cod perfectly cooked, and we loved its salty, crispy skin. Still so very moist and fresh like it came swimming out onto my plate, with the surround of mussels, chorizo, and veggies providing an inspired textural contrast. In other words our mouths were loving this! I washed it down with a glass of J. Christopher "Croft Vineyard" Sauvignon Blanc which is not only the best sauv blanc made in America, but a ridiculously food friendly white.
This was followed not by dessert but an unctuous glass of Bas Armagnac cognac, yet another reason to respect the French and their liqurious ways. I really like the B&F space, brightly lit (at certain times of the early evening a bit too), very comfortable open space. The bar stools are some of the most butt worthy spots to park it in town, and the service is always friendly. With Kevin providing direction and his crew whipping out the goods behind the bar, and Bettinger obviously showing some serious chops in the kitchen, Beaker & Flask is a great, near-bargain priced night out. Put it on your "get there soon" list!