At Alameda's Pop Inn you can score a porno in the big grabby-claw game machine if you're skilled, or sulk over multiple PBRs at the three-sided portion of the bar known as Hangover Square. But solace is more than the sum of three-buck pints or the fusty charms of a room where the machinery of time runs at one-eighth speed. Neighborhood taverns smooth the jagged edge of need. Those with food like the Hobnob, a new bar just down Park Street from the Pop Inn smooth that edge with extra finesse.
A bar, I mean an actual bar, is the most genuinely communal table you'll ever slur the story of a messed-up relationship at. And the Hobnob's brand of bar food the kind that goes well beyond mystery meatballs at some free-nosh chafing-dish happy hour has a fiercely local mandate. Restaurants cast a wide net, but bar food has to stick with the locals who show up on the barstools. Success here is a matter of successfully pegging Alameda, a place of blue-collar bonhomie, upscale aspirations, and the residue of conservatism that clings to former military towns. All in all, not the easiest job for a chef.
As far as the physical space, owners Amy and Michael J. Voisenat have nailed it. The venerable old Kelley's space (most recently a jazz club) is a kind of Park Street institution in its own right, like a library devoted to the study of the bar coaster and the martini buzz. As the Hobnob, the room has the we-put-it-together-ourselves look of a mom 'n' pop. Michael Voisenat made the slat-backed benches and shingle-like menu boards himself; chairs have splayed legs and hearts jigsaw-cut from their backs, like furniture in the Seven Dwarfs' cottage. All that wood-shop earnestness lends a touch of the wholesome wrapped up in the corny. It even seeps into cocktails such as a mojito spiked with 7UP, or Allison's Delight, a fruity rum concoction that tasted like Kool-Aid with a kick.
Still, it may be impossible to get more wholesome or cornier than the Hobnob's big old stack of board games. On a recent evening the room was punctuated with the family-friendly click of checkers sliding into the vertical grids of Connect Four boards, and the hollow rattle of dice in a cup. On a bookcase at the back of the room, there's a thrift-store jumble of parlor games: Sorry!, Careers, and Rummikub. Like some High Street pub of Olde England, the Hobnob is a drinking establishment with the unsleazy vibe of a bring-the-little-ones place.
As for the food, look no further than the truffle fries a dish that successfully balances fancy with the familiar profile of good old bar food as proof of Amy Voisenat's ability to read Alameda. Forget some decadent fantasy of pommes frites sprinkled with shavings of black truffle. Voisenat's vision is a pile of skinny fries with a firm grasp of the ordinary, even lacking, as far as I could tell, the tossing with Parmesan and herbs the menu described. They did, however, come with a ramekin of truffle aioli really good truffle aioli: pale and soft and with bright acidity, a playful bite of garlic, and the delicious, dog-bed funk of truffle oil. It was a dish that didn't seem like much on first dunk, but revealed a subtle and unpretentious sense of refinement the more you ate. And if all that truffle stuff seemed weird, I imagine you could ask for ketchup and just go on yakking.
Just as those fries straddled two realities, Amy Voisenat herself straddles two worlds. Even as she's kick-starting the Hobnob, Voisenat still works as executive chef at Thirsty Bear, San Francisco's tapas-and-microbrew moshpit. Most nights she clocks out of her day job and crosses the Bridge to supervise her sous chef in Alameda, overseeing the Hobnob's flow of nosh-size plates and slightly more substantial dishes.
Count marinated olives and cheese as just about the most successful small-plates nibble, a nicely oily mess of the green and the black, firm cubes of sheep-y pecorino, and a whiff of rosemary and garlic. Grilled artichokes had rusky outer leaves, creamy-textured hearts, and a fierce little breath of the grill. Best of all, they came with more of that aioli, in this case without truffle oil. Dungeness crab cakes were firm without crossing over into bready, and their corn-and-olive relish got points for not being mango salsa, a crab-cake cliché.
A Cuban sandwich was cut up into dainty little triangles, though with its ham and sour pickles and gooey Swiss, it tasted more Denny's than dainty, especially with its accompanying ketchup. I've yet to meet a miniburger that's even a fraction as satisfying as a maxiburger, and the Hobnob's version kept my record intact. The miniburger conundrum goes like this: too much surface and not enough meaty center, so in order to grill a doll-size patty long enough to stiffen it, the meat ends up overcooked. Mini corndogs were long on effort but short on payoff. Nubbins of housemade pork sausage didn't seem quite right inside faintly greasy, hushpuppy-like cornmeal breading.
The more entrée-focused small plates revealed a kitchen poised on the edge of busting out. Napped in viscous blue-cheese dressing, an iceberg wedge salad was crisp and tangy, and bits of toasted pecan provided occasional hits of nutty sweetness. Sauteed black tiger prawns had a lot of tasty, chile-flecked olive oil for sopping up with big, crispy toasts. The fish part of fish and chips was beautifully flaky, snowy hunks of Pacific snapper in perfectly crisp, delicate batter. And even though grilled hanger steak had a slightly grainy texture that suggested it had marinated too long, it was hard not to like the garlicky jab of its grape-tomato salsa.
Michael Voisenat told me he's surprised that the food has been so popular. He'd expected sales to be about seventy-thirty, drinks to food. So far, he said, it's been nearly the opposite. You get the sense that the kitchen is scrambling a little to adjust to the unexpected spotlight. Lucky for them, the hometown crowd seems more than willing to wait.
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