"I know you don't drink, so I made this without alcohol," he said. Obviously, I'd been recognized. The glass contained a dessert made with espresso granitas, chocolate chips, a hint of hazelnut, and whipped cream.
"So, you're the mixologist?" I asked, scooping up spoonfuls of the perfect blend of sweetness and bitterness. "This is really good."
He leaned forward, laughing. "I'm a bartender, not a mixologist."
It may seem like a trivial moment, but the response was refreshing and fit the new pub perfectly. There are plenty of exotic cocktails — Wayne's $11 Off into the Sunset, for example — but there is nothing grandiose or pretentious in the new subterranean space beneath Livingston Restaurant.
Start with the wine-cellar architecture of brick walls and arches, a few flashes of steel, the relatively low sound level, and seating that allows you to socialize at the bar or cozy up in a booth with a date. But most of all there's chef Zeb Stevenson's straightforward and inexpensive menu of snacks and sandwiches.
Stevenson, who is also executive chef of Livingston, mainly aims for heightened familiar flavors instead of the exotic. He uses locally sourced ingredients but doesn't create what reads like a royal family tree of each dish, as has become common on many menus. A corner of the menu explains: "In an effort to prevent the menu from being overly wordy, we've eliminated terms like 'house-made,' 'homemade,' and 'in-house' ... With only a few exceptions (bread, cheese, and dry-cured charcuterie, mostly) everything is made right here." Another corner lists various suppliers.
We sampled a lot of dishes, most all of which we liked. Of the $3 snacks we ordered, the chicken liver mousse with a slick layer of peach jelly was the best. Deviled eggs claim to be "better than Grandma used to make." Maybe, but not better than my mother used to make. I missed her crunchy relish. The one flop was a little container of "last season's pickled vegetables," which turned out to be green beans without crispness and little more than vinegary flavor.
Charcuterie plates are available in multiples of two, three, or four meats. We chose a peppery pancetta and an appropriately super-fatty guanciale. Our third choice was challenging — a pâté made from rabbit liver topped with a triple berry jam. The liver requires use of the latest overused food-critic term I've come to hate: "funk." That's right, the sweet, slightly sour jam helped ease the pointed funk of the rabbit liver. Got that?
We also ordered a couple of cheeses — a blue and a chèvre — to accompany the charcuterie, and a plate of six chicken wings, seasoned mainly like the usual Buffalo ones, but cooked confit-style instead of fried. I was surprised that I liked them. They weren't the gooey mess I feared at all.
We each ordered a sandwich. Mine was filled with prosciutto, arugula, cheddar cheese, and fig jam. There were problems. It was made with a very thick sandwich bread (from H&F Bread Co.) that was "griddled" so that it reminded me of Texas toast. The bread was too thick for the rather sparse ingredients. Interestingly, I could not find any fig jam on the bread, even though I got an occasional taste of it. It turned out that the arugula had been lightly tossed with some.
Wayne's sandwich was filled with shaved prime rib, Gruyère cheese, peppers, and onions, served with the requisite dipping jus. He loved it. I burned out on prime rib in any form years ago. Next time I'm having the crumpets, black pudding, and fried egg or the hot dog wrapped in potato dough.
Keep in mind that any complaints about this food are in the context of very low prices, like $7 for the sandwiches and $5 for the wings. And most of the food is meant as snacks to accompany the anti-mixologist's cocktails, wine list, and artisan beers. For the money, it's all a bargain.
Service at the new spot was excellent. Our server, Justin, knew the menu in detail and is herewith declared Server of the Month.
Would I go back? Absolutely, but probably not to make a full meal of the food. It's across the street from the Fox Theatre, so that makes it especially convenient for show crowds.
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