Five buck wine and tasty tapas for the rest of us at the Brown Hotel lobby bar
It's gratifying knowing that major publications expound on the pleasures of dining at the English Grill; nice knowing that our city has such a noteworthy restaurant. I've never supped myself in the "rarified confines of ... one of the finest restaurants in the nation" (according to Forbes Traveller). I'm too afraid of rarified confines, myself. But I have snacked on their bar food, which comes from the same said rarefied kitchen, and I can see why the magazines rave so. Even the bar food comes at a price as lofty as those ornate ceilings in the Brown's lobby though, so I don't visit often.
Through an inside connection I'd heard about a happy hour though, a real one with $5 wines, half-price specialty cocktails and even affordable tapas. And good thing someone in the know told me because this little nugget is buried on the Brown's web site. Maybe they're not looking to serve the kind of riff-raff out looking for a cheap drink?
The happy hours are held Thursday and Friday from 5:30 to 8:30, and in Brown fashion, are set to live (most of the time) piano music. So you can settle into a cushy seat at a table or hop up on a bar stool and choose from four tapas: Free Range Oregano Chicken Kebabs with Gremolata Sauce, Porcini Mushroom & Shallot Risotto with Lemon Mascarpone, Pancetta Wrapped Shrimp with Roasted Capsicum and Basil and Heirloom Tomato and Arugula On Pecorino Romano Crostini with Marinated White Anchovies. They range in price from about $5-7. There's the regular bar menu as well, the highlight of which is the last-meal-worthy truffled lobster mac and cheese. The bartenders are pretty generous with their definition of specialty drinks for the half-off special, but even with that markdown the Brown's cocktails are a bit rich for my blood. Better for the budget-minded are the $5 Terra d’Oro wines; a Zin, Sangiovese, Barbera and Rose.
My husband Brian and I stopped in last Friday night to try out the tasties. No way could we share a mushroom risotto without coming to blows so we each ordered one, along with one plate of the tomato crostini. Neal Ward, manager of the English Grill and family friend, sold us on his special, a scallop with french fried carrots and morels. He's a hell of a salesman -- the single scallop was 12 bucks. That's what I get for not asking. Brian and I sipped our quite nice Sangiovese and listened to the piano, feeling a bit like kids playing at being grown ups as our feet dangled from the barstools.
I don't think as a child I'd have appreciated the risotto with quite the abandon I did now though. Risottos often disappoint, even in so called nice restaurants, with gummy or undercooked rice. This dish had me at the truffle oil, but the arborio rice itself was cooked perfectly. Throw in the big meaty porcini mushrooms and rich buttery sauce and I was a goner. I could have polished off about a gallon, but the risotto was served on an elegantly petite dish so I contented myself with using my finger to mop up sauce when the bartender turned her back. The key, Neal explained, is the à la minute style of the kitchen -- none of this 'cook a batch in the morning and slop a plate into a microwave' business.
The scallop was as fabulous as Neal promised, perfectly seared and sweet, though the kitchen was overly generous with the salt. The crostini were lovely, with little red and orange grape tomatoes that popped pleasingly in the mouth.
I probably had enough room for dessert, but figured we were hovering around $40 -- before tip -- a little much for what I meant to be a happy hour priced meal, so we called it a night. I'll definitely be back for more of that risotto -- maybe I'll just order two next time?