Unseasoned denizens of the University District might be surprised to learn that the unremarkable Best Western at Brooklyn and 45th was, in its day, the illustrious grande dame of the neighborhood, the Meany Hotel.
Though its sidewalk persona belies nothing of its past, the moderately stylish, vaguely deco lobby hints at its former elegance. Descend the lobby stairs and you'll find yourself in a large, multichambered basement room filled with big banquettes and bathed in amber light. Welcome to The District.
Thus christened in May, it's a somewhat pretentious name befitting its ambitions. No rathskeller this but a serious restaurant complete with a chef de cuisine (who — fair warning — may trot himself out to your table) and a lineup of nouveau tapas.
Maybe it's just that your expectations will automatically plunge the moment you walk into a hotel bar, but you will likely be duly impressed with your noshes. (The menu also lists some casual comfort foods — mac and cheese, grilled meatloaf sandwich, Parmesan chicken — as $7-$13 entrees.)
Though some of the plates are flawed, flavors are generally bright and combinations original.
And it all goes down pretty darned easy with a mojito, the (improvable) signature drink of The District, which amid the live bossa nova music Thursday nights is priced at $4 ($2 off) after 8:30 p.m. With free validated parking in the adjacent hotel lot off Brooklyn, you can build yourself a pretty cheap date of a Thursday. Or come solo: The place features all the blissful anonymity of hotel bars the world 'round.
My only gripe concerns notably uninterested service. A week of calling the aforementioned phone number yielded nothing, not even a machine greeting to list address and hours. (I marvel at the number of restaurants that fail to exploit this most basic, and most affordable, form of advertising.) The flawed hospitality continued when I walked in and had to hog-tie a waiter for attention.
Thank goodness the tapas went on to issue a welcome of its own.
Mojito: It was a cryin' shame, in a bar specializing in the Cuban rum concoctions, to encounter this wan facsimile: too light on the rum, not nearly enough lime, flavors muddy across the board.
Yukon-gold potato soup: A warming, savory soup chock-full of the Yukon's buttery flavor and (for better or worse) much of its potato texture. The more potato-y, the better, votes this critic — especially when complemented with carmelized onions.
Plantain tostones with smoked salmon: Tostones are fried plantain discs, popular throughout Latin America. What sounded bland and starchy tasted elegant, even bold, when topped with the fervent combo of mascarpone, very smoky lox, and a pretty confetti of chives and peppers. A quartet of these little packages arrived over terrific greens and won our vote for best dish of the night.
Crispy blue-corn calamari: Squid rings, nicely dusted in blue corn and fried to slight overgreasiness, arrived alongside a dandy little salad (note the whisper of pesto in the dressing) and a blop of underseasoned jalapeño-lime aioli.
Sake- and pear-glazed short ribs: This featured four ribs, kalbi-marinated, glazed in a luscious sake-and-pear concoction and served over a tantalizing wasabi slaw. Every bite held new surprises, and the plate was constructed with artistry.
Apple-pear crisp: Call me an unreconstructed purist, but I'm no fan of apple skin or big hits of ginger in my apple crisp. (Or pear, for that matter, but that I could be persuaded to accept.) Nope, this version — though technically all right — was just too newfangled for old folksy me.
Itemized bill, meal for two
Yukon-gold potato soup $5.00
Plantain tostones with smoked salmon $9.00
Crispy blue-corn calamari $6.00
Sake- and pear-glazed short ribs $9.00
Apple-pear crisp $5.00
Kathryn Robinson: firstname.lastname@example.org