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Playing with his food
Food/Drink - Review
Monday, 15 December 2008
Comfortably situated in his new Nob Hill digs, Chef Sam Etheridge and his inescapable penchant for creating wry culinary works of art, has found a home
By Kevin Hopper
With his former Old Town gourmet spot Ambrozia, Chef Sam Etheridge made a name for himself as an imaginative and wryly playful local super chef. When it was announced that Ambrozia was closing a year ago, it was bittersweet news for local foodies. Gone was a restaurant that was not only a Sunday Brunch favorite, but one of the town’s truly cutting-edge gourmet dining rooms. On the other hand, the prospect of Etheridge’s new spot in Nob Hill, which he started with Owner Matt Ludeman in the old Graze location, provided hope for an even bigger and better Ambrozia-esque eatery.
Such a prospect was not to be.
Rather, Ludeman and Etheridge decided to take a wholly new approach, albeit one that has proven successful in many other locales: the gastropub. The general idea of the gastropub is to serve high-quality food at what would otherwise be your friendly neighborhood bar or pub. While at times Nob Hill Bar & Grill has that sort of feel, it’s obvious that this is a restaurant first and foremost. Though there was a huge amount of expected hype when it opened last spring and the venture garnered mixed reviews since then, Etheridge and Ludeman have ultimately created a place that has a little something for the diner, a little something for the drinker and even more for the casual cocktail-wielding nosher. In other words, Nob Hill Bar & Grill is a just great place to hang out.
For those who fondly recall those lazy, elongated and indulgent brunch affairs at Ambrozia, they can still be found at Nob Hill every Sunday. On a recent visit between the brunching hours of 11a and 3p, my dining companion and I ate heartily for $20 each.
I added another $8 for the pleasure of downing my new favorite cocktail/breakfast dish, the aptly-titled Breakfast of Champions, a stiff and spicy Bloody Mary served in a martini glass with a poached egg, green chile and a strip of bacon that acts as a swizzle stick. Don’t scoff! It was the perfect primer for my next two courses – a miniature version of bagel and lox and a smashing eggs benedict plate. I also nibbled on my dining companion’s choices, a deliciously comforting plate of three Guinness oatmeal pancakes and the brunch highlight, a chicken fried steak set atop cheddar bread pudding with cheese Tabasco grits. After all that, the dessert course was, of course, unnecessary. However, when presented with a trio of ultra-rich chocolate truffles and a deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich, what’s a diner to do?
Thankfully, there’s one other key aspect of Ambrozia that Etheridge wisely packed with his knives when he made the move from Old Town: his sense of humor. Who else would ask $25 for a something called a “Dirty Burger?” Chef Etheridge. What other chef would have the gumption to put a poached egg and green in a cocktail? Chef Etheridge. How about a dessert item that replicates, in terms of sweetness, the deadly nature of an evening-ending drink like the Irish Car Bomb ( $8). Chef “you know who.” It’s that humorous approach that has both endeared Etheridge to this dining community and established Nob Hill Bar & Grill as a staple in its namesake neighborhood.
Admittedly, when the eatery first opened, there was concern about a few of the menu items — namely, the Buffalo Calamari, which pairs semi-light squid with the heavy flavor of buffalo hot wing sauce (a bit too “opposite-ends-of-the-spectrum” for my tastes). Likewise, the popular lobster corn dogs that proved to be a favorite offering at Ambrozia, now arrives at your table as shrimp corn dogs ($9), hardly a adequate substitute.
These are minor glitches, though, on an otherwise intriguing and frolicsome menu. While the pistachio that encrusts the kitchen’s provolone can barely be saved by the “blackberry dippin’ sauce” that accompanies the appetizer ($6), diners can and should opt for the house made mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto and served with the curious combo of tomato jam and candied basil ($8).
The international art scene once became enamored with Andy Warhol after he presented objects in just a slightly different and very unexpected light. The same principles are at work here. Everyone, it seems, offers some sort of appetizer or main course that features ahi tuna these days. Most of them miss the mark and as disappointed as I was to see ahi tuna “nachos” on the Nob Hill menu, I was impressed by the simple preparation of the dish — dots of wasabi caviar, sunflower sprouts and a Siracha queso. Likewise, fish tacos are finally getting the respect they have long deserved, but who would dare to serve them without tortillas? Chef Etheridge, that’s who.
Like Warhol’s adherents, it’s easy to fall for Etheridge’s witty culinary works of art, but despite his obvious temptations to be the wittiest, wryest chef in the house, the genius here is in the restraint. Personally, I would never prepare French onion soup in a fashion that veers from tradition. Etheridge’s version is almost true to form, differing only by the addition of apples. Certainly, seminal French chef Auguste Escoffier is spinning in his grave, but that slight twist adds just enough “newness” to the dish to make it seem, well, new.
Whether you patronize Nob Hill Bar & Grill for the purpose of noshing, “cocktailing” (the bar has equally waggish offerings) or gourmet dining, this newly-established Nob Hill anchor has you covered. What’s more, your dinner, appetizers and drinks will share both flavor and a bit of humor during your visit.

Nob Hill Bar & Grill
3128 Central SE, 266.4455
11a-10p, Mon.-Sat.; 11a-3p Sun.
Bar open late

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