A Blog Mainly About Food

If by "mainly" you mean "sometimes"

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Bar Food Plus

Is it just me, or is the trend of re-imagined comfort food getting a little out of hand? The corn dogs at Tallula, the miniburgers pretty much everywhere (though I like the Matchbox version best), the "kit kats" that Michel Richard apparently serves at Citronelle... it's understandable after years of high-art cuisine alienating the common diner, but there are times when whimsy gets in the way of delicious. But despite my inner protestations, I went the comfort food route when I sat down at the Palena bar and saw that the menu featured a hot dog, cheeseburgers, and fries. Sure there were other things on the menu, but when a restaurant comes as highly praised as Palena (and if you haven't read the near-rhapsodic musings on eGullet, click here) I had to try Frank Ruta's take on the frankfurter.

Don't be fooled by Palena's amateur looking website: this is no simple restaurant. When I walked in, the first word to come to mind was "schmancy". The bar stools looked like bisected chaise-lounges; the lounge area itself was moderately lit with multiple tables. I didn't have a chance to scan the main dining room, but the bar alone felt a little out of my league. Glad I didn't change out of my work clothes before going! I grabbed a seat at the bar and ordered an $8 glass of red, a hot dog, and a half order of fries. Pulling out my paper, I prepared for the odd juxtaposition of eating re-imagined street food in such a fancy environment.

My first taste of the wine (Ramitello, Italian) set the tone for the rest of my experience. The wine was fruity and unpretentious--not the most complex flavor in the world, but a good accent to the heavier meal to come. When it did, I was pleased. The presentation of the hot dog was as expected: a large, gourmet looking sausage on a fancy bun, slathered with dijon mustard, the home made "kraut", and a few meager pieces of homemade potato salad. The fries (I bought a half order) came out on white china lined with, of all things, a brown paper towel. The kind you used to use in high school. Hilarious.

The hot dog was delicious, the lack of sauer in the kraut more than made up for by the spicy dijon mustard. At first I tried eating it with a fork and a knife. But the bartender (he was great) came by and told me to just use my hands. The decor may be fancy, but the service is homey. So I tucked in two-handed style and enjoyed something about as far from a hot dog as Oscar Meyer is from a real pig. This was no ordinary link--salty, spiced with what tasted like garlic, and clearly made from very high quality meat. Delicious. Next to that, the undercooked potato salad bits were a huge disappointment. At this point, I polished of the Ramitello and switched to a California Zinfandel.

The fries were a huge surprise, thin and served with onion rings, fried mashed potatoes (!), fried lemon slices (!!), and a spicy mayonnaise bisected by a stripe of homemade ketchup. The fries were the most mediocre part of the spread and the fried mashed potatoes (small balls of mash lightly browned) were the best. The lemon slices were a surprise; I actually bit into it thinking it was a fried potato sliced widthwise and did a double take. It was a little much with the spicy mayo, but the ketchup cooled the flavors down. The Zin wasn't the best pairing here; rich with vanilla and oak, it would probably have been a better match for the hot dog.

At its most basic, you could say I ate a hot dog and fries last night at a bar. But that summary is about as reductive as you can get. Heck, the bill could tell you that. This was next-level bar food, and it was delicious. I'm eager to return to the bar and try some of the other offerings and see if they hold up to the hot dog standard.