Married partners Barbara Mulas and Mark Drazek met at culinary school in the late 1980s, and throughout the 1990s their cooking at ZAX in North Beach and later ZAX Tavern in Berkeley defined technically solid cooking with an added bump of sophistication. ZAX Tavern was a place every neighborhood would've been lucky to have: a good burger, an even better martini, and a credible take on California brasserie cooking in dishes like wilted frisée salad with seared duck livers and soft-poached egg. That last dish now seems a scoche grand for neighborhood grub, but recall our pre-Y2K obsession with Coogi sweaters, ending welfare as we knew it, and the perilously stacked entrée dusted with fennel pollen.
But now that vertical plate-ups are as dead as vertical leveraging and the shock of flatlined 401(k)s has us all seeking out primly horizontal comfort foods, Mulas and Drazek have reinvented themselves — sort of. Two years after ZAX Tavern went dark, the couple has partnered with front-of-house manager Anne Marie Adrain in a place at the edge of Grand Lake with a decidedly urban bounce and prices calibrated to the new Depression. Sidebar launched in early February in the old Trio Bistro space, and it's a testament to diners' reservoir of rosy memories about ZAX that after three weeks, it was tough to snag an open barstool on a Friday night.
A pre-opening press release called the new venture a "gastropub," and the first reviews played along. Funny thing is, Sidebar's menu is pretty much identical to ZAX's, in spirit if not in every particular. Meaning that, often, it's not what you do to reinvent yourself so much as what you call it. In scale and conception, Mulas and Drazek's cooking occasionally feels as dated as a shoulder pad-stuffed jacket from Hilary Clinton's White House closet. The rest of the time, it's all classic Cali-Parisian, a purely local hybrid.
If anything about Mulas and Drazek's current gig feels genuinely new, it's the venue: walls of candied-yam orange, hung with quirky framed photo blow-ups of urban randomness. Double dining spaces (casual on the left, formal-ish on the right) open out like a pop-up book, with the bar rising in the middle. Stools wrap around three sides, making staring at other diners easy, unavoidable even. And the cocktail menu, fashioned by consultant Johnny Raglin, is a joy: "classicist" versions of the martini and the Aviator, say, with alternate "locavore" versions made with locally distilled artisan bottles.
But by far, the most interesting place to perch is the copper-clad kitchen counter — five stools facing the open cooks' line. Evenings, you're an arm's length from Mulas working the sauté station.
The bifurcated menu has its appetizers and mains (with add-on greens and starches), but the allocation feels random at times. "Classic Tomato Soup" shows up with the entrées, while the entrée-scale panini are officially starters. It's a quibble, but it does suggest wider confusion about what the restaurant aims to be: snacky bar, or full-on dining establishment. Other bar-dominant ventures — Flora, for instance — suffered initial uncertainty, too, before figuring it out. No reason to think Mulas and Drazek won't do the same.
A bowl of delicious steamed clams was a starter scaled for sharing. Its thick, tomato-spiked broth had been enriched with butter and, despite a couple of gnarls of skinless chorizo, the flavors were mild enough to let the delicate sweetness of the shellfish shine through. Likewise, duck liver crostini had both heft and flavor enough to suggest share plates. Mashy, spiked with garlic and herbs, and spread thickly on grilled hunks of Acme levain, the toasts nuzzled a heap of salad greens well lubricated with tangy vinaigrette. If the crostini had been warm.
Nice as they were, deviled eggs had temperature issues, too. I got the feeling their mustardy filling had been piped in before service, the stuffed eggs held in a reach-in cooler, garnished with filaments of Dungeness at the last minute.
Ordered as a first course, that tomato soup was perfectly hot, but not particularly pleasant — easily the least satisfying dish I tasted over three visits. It was sour, like canned tomatoes with the acidity left unchecked. Besides, it's weeks before decent fresh tomatoes show up on any produce wholesaler's list. Why bother?
The kitchen is on firmer ground with more substantial dishes. The hamburger is a beauty: beefy tasting, nicely seasoned, and grilled with skill, on its squishy, Thousand Island-slathered bun, with house-made onion and zucchini pickles. Amazing that it's a mere ten bucks, especially since you get a heap of oven-baked fries, which are steaky and delicately crisp.
Oven-roast poussin with German Butterball potato hash was a sweet take on roast chicken and mash. The young chicken had moist, fine-grained flesh, and the skin-on spuds were appealingly earthy. A dark chicken jus was spiked with whole-grain mustard — a lithe, deep-tasting sauce with a welcome snarl of acidity. Steak frites found the kitchen at its brasserie best. Deftly grilled and sliced obliquely, the flank steak had rich, round flavor and the thinnish fries were just right. Tricked out with clams, sausage, and roasted pepper strips, Atlantic cod stew was a Pernod-infused elaboration on the steamed clams app.
Desserts are straightforward. In one, wedges of warm cornmeal poundcake nestled in a bowl of strawberries with a plouf of whipped cream. "Almond Joy," Mark Drazek's signature sweet, is essentially a rich brownie with caramel sauce and coconut ice cream. They seem just right here: simple, comforting, inexpensive, and yet suffused with quiet skill.
Those are the very strengths of the menu at large, even if, not quite three-month-old Sidebar is still finding its stride. Last month, Mulas described her goal for Sidebar: "Sophisticated, but not over the top." She and Drazek have the not-over-the-top thing down; now, all they have to nail is the sophisticated part.
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