310 Colorado, 478-BEER
Mon-Thu, 11:30am-midnight, Fri, 11:30am-1am, Sat, 5pm-1am, Sun, 5pm-midnight
For diners' sake, the "conversation room," as The B Side is referred to, will hopefully draw off some of the bar crowd from the restaurant's poorly configured main space, in which a small dining room is sunk below and abutted against a cramped, neon-lit bar area. As a result, the noise at eating level is uproarious during the busy weekends, turning a Friday or Saturday night meal into a shouting match. But now barflies as well as dinner patrons waiting to eat can saunter over to The B Side and relax in stylish, dimly lit comfort, sip on a cocktail or one of the brewpub's commendable hand-crafted beers, and munch on one of The Bitter End's pizzas or appetizers, such as the bistro's signature charcuterie plate or semolina-crusted calamari rings.
To accompany the makeover of The B Side, The Bitter End has also changed its menu for the first time in several months. The kitchen's distinctive salads, sandwiches, and pizzas remain the main attractions, while the appetizers, entrées, and desserts score hits and misses. In the splendid Wilted Spinach Salad With Lime-Harissa Vinaigrette ($7), lightly sautéed greens and tangy bits of Stilton are dressed in spicy citrus to make a hardy appetizer or a solid lunch. And with or without roasted chicken ($6/$7.25), the Bistro Caesar is exemplary. Refreshingly well balanced, the salad combines just the right amount of anchovy with a healthy portion of shaved Parmesan cheese and a restrained dose of egg and lemon to flavor the romaine lettuce without saturating it.
Available for lunch or dinner, the vibrant Salad Niçoise With Grilled Tuna Filet is the bargain of the house ($8.50). Bright, crisp green beans, tender new potatoes, and firm Niçoise olives star alongside a sizable cut of fresh tuna. And to my pleasant surprise the fish came grilled to order, the chef resisting the temptation to cook it beyond the simple searing requested. Available at lunch only, the Mediterranean Sandwich is also a good deal. For a fin, you get a lightly dressed salad of new potatoes and green beans aside a whopping load of sweet roasted eggplant and tomatoes layered with melted mozzarella between two pieces of wonderful crusty bread, which is baked on the premises in the restaurant's impressive wood-burning oven.
The wood oven is also responsible for the exceptional crust that anchors the Bitter End's single-serving pizzas. We particularly enjoyed the Pancetta Pizza ($8.50), a small, sauceless pie that made up in flavor what it lacked in volume. Joining the Italian bacon atop a chewy sourdough disk was the unlikely combination of potatoes, feta, mozzarella, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, and green olives, which harmonized surprisingly well except for the olives, which pushed the salt level to the brink of tolerability.
Too much salt proved to be the undoing of the Grilled Polenta With Mushrooms appetizer ($6.50). Although the polenta was seasoned nicely with herbs and scallions and had a good grilled flavor, it was killed by the excessively saline mushroom broth accompanying it. And whereas the spicy Red Chili Steamed Mussels ($7.50) were plump and savory, the appetizer's salty liquor of wine, lemon, sage, and cayenne came perilously close to the mushroom-broth level.
Ordering an entrée at the Bitter End is an expensive crapshoot. The meats and fish, which are for the most part roasted or grilled, tend to be cooked and seasoned well, but other items can be disastrous. The crunchy Saffron Risotto ($10.50), for instance, was grossly undercooked, as was the multi-grain rice accompanying the tender Pan-Seared Pork Tenderloin in orange chipotle glaze ($16.50). And although the Grilled Beef Tenderloin ($18.50) was moist and flavored superbly with a green-peppercorn sauce, the side dish of goat-cheese mashed potatoes was disappointingly dry.
A less costly way to explore the main dishes is to visit the restaurant on Sunday or Monday for its prix-fixe dinners. Two menus are offered - one for $12.50, one for $14.50 - which include a mixed green or Caesar salad, a predesignated entrée, and a choice of several desserts. Getting the Caesar, a perfectly grilled filet of red fish, and a splendid chocolate-espresso terrine with caramelized pecans, all for less than $15, made it easy to overlook the woefully underdone pilaf that rounded out the meal. Washed down with the brewpub's gingery Hill Country Honeymead, a fine, flowery honey ale, the inexpensive repast earned the promise of a return visit. Also, the off-night crowd was pleasantly thin, allowing the restaurant's efficient, unassuming staff and its - dare I admit it? - cool quasi-industrial interior of copper-top tables, stainless steel lamps, and arty piping to shine.
Trying to please all of the people all of the time is risky business, but The Bitter End does a pretty good job at it. The eatery/brewpub/cocktail lounge is definitely at its best serving busy business lunchers and sartorial nightlifers, but it also offers quality options for the more discerning diner. You just have to know where - and when - to look.
Central Market Cooking School, February 9
Michele Anna Jordan, California talk-radio host, self-proclaimed "Seasonal Nazi," and author of nine cookbooks, including California Home Cooking (Harvard Common Press), taught a class at Central Market Cooking School on February 9.
Jordan is a champion of at least two things: California history, as evidenced by her extensive knowledge and her highly researched latest book, and vegetables that are in season. She even went so far as to remove the tomatoes from her salad during the lunch she had in Austin, commenting, "That's what canned tomatoes are for: when real tomatoes are out of season."
Dressed in a white chef's coat accented with a leopard-skin pattern, a black velvet skirt, and cowboy boots, Jordan delivered a series of informed mini-lectures on the topics of agriculture, science, and California history and weather while she led the class through the steps of an easy and delicious, if screamingly indulgent, dinner.
While she prepared Striped Tomato Brie as an appetizer, we learned what El Niño storms will mean for the Russian River Valley, her home and one of the world's best growing regions for Pinot Noir. It should be noted that she displayed much more concern for the grapes than herself. Or us, for that matter.
The brie recipe requires the simple preparation of a sun-dried tomato, thyme, and shallot butter to spread around the rim of and use as filling for a horizontally sliced wheel of brie. "Don't think I don't realize that I'm encouraging you to spread butter on cheese and eat it," Jordan told the class. "But it's the French paradox. Milk causes heart disease, but cheese has already been partially pre-digested so it's okay. And butter is better than margarine and most other unsaturated fats. As long as you enjoy your food, it's alright to eat cheese with butter. Plus, a glass of this red wine makes it all go away anyhow," she explained.
We moved on to a powerfully fresh Tomato-Cilantro Soup while she described how grapes can go dormant if they are flooded. So as long as California doesn't dry out then become wet again, it can rain as much as it wants and the grape crop can survive.
Jordan then fed us Spicy Ranch Chicken with Chorizo Stuffing, a bone-in, skin-on leg/thigh favorite of hers. Central Market chorizo, green olives, serrano chile, coriander, cumin, and chili powder flavored this robust but very simple dish. Although it wasn't called for in the recipe, she prepared it using lime wedges under the skin.
While Jordan may indeed be a seasonal Nazi, she is more relaxed than most when it comes to her actual recipes. "(My recipes are) written down as they are to please my editor," she said. "But when I cook, I cook." She suggests that we do the same. - Meredith Phillips
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