A good neighborhood restaurant is as much about what it isn't as what it is. It mustn't be so fussy that you're loath to stop by in the second wear of those yoga pants, but then it's got to have more panache than Bitesquad and the living room. But what if your neighborhood is the glitziest of them all, your abode is a sprawling lakeside mansion, and your yoga pants are Prada? How does a stop-in-three-times-a-week restaurant keep its appeal for types who dwell where waters glitter through the picture windows, and yachts bob around at the shoreline?
Check in on Excelsior's Coalition and you will begin to get a clue.
Rich but clean natural elements strike a timeless and elegant posture — wood on the floor, exposed brick, and a showstopper of an antique tin ceiling. Smoky mirrors line the walls (for catching a glint of your diamonds?) and royal blues befit modern-day kings and queens. Chic incandescent bulbs hang from the ceiling and cast a light that puts you in the mood to order off the old vine menu.
Surprisingly, one can drink and dine mostly affordably here. Unless you must splurge on the $29 fish entree — your prerogative — you'll find many little plates and bites to mix and match and add up to a satisfying whole.
Steamed bao buns are one of those of-the-moment chef's darlings, the kind of thing that peppers cool-kid menus in every Hip City, USA. And yet, we've rarely had one that really lives up to all the hype until now. Tender as marshmallows, these provide the ideal landing pad for an assertively seasoned and herbaceous braised pork, crunchy little carrot and cuke salad, and mayo laced with tart, astringent yuzu. Eddie Huang is the reigning bao champion of the world with his BaoHaus restaurant in New York City. Could there be a rival on the prim, mostly white-folk main street of Excelsior? We think so.
Garlic lovers, the mussels will have you rethinking that boring old bistro classic of bivalves in broth. These are emphatic and bright with whole cloves of roasted garlic, curls of fennel, and impressive acidic balance, plus an adorable, wee loaf of garlic toast that's a treat unto itself. Use it to soak up all the briny liquor and damn if this isn't a dish to remember.
While the petit tender steak sandwich was overcooked on the first delivery, the second time around yielded a juicy cut, nestled into crisp toasted ciabatta with a satisfying little sidecar of au jus keeping things that much more unctuous. Horseradish cream makes it a fairly traditional interpretation, but do as we did and choose the side of slaw (fries are also an option) to pile on top, Southern style.
They do a soulful version of a lamb sugo, using strozzapreti pasta, a long tube that's been hand folded onto itself creating a little sauce-holding crevice. The sugo is slow cooked and gamey yet tomato-y enough that it would still appeal to a kid. It's at once comforting yet fancy — just the thing to make you forget your worldly woes while delighting in the skills of a chef.
Mixologist Andrew Robertson is a barman to keep an eye on — his bloody Mary gets top placement for one of the best in all the land, with habanero kick, yet deep Worcestershire-induced umami balance. It's garnished with only cheese, olive, celery, and pickle — the way God intended — so you can feel like a grownup while you savor it. The Corpse Reviver is a mimosa turned up with local gin from J. Carver Distillery, citrusy Lillet Blanc, Cointreau, and lemon juice. It's a stunner of a drink — refreshing for night as well as day.
Libations disappointed once, with a Pear Ginger Martini that read like the tropics meets Asia, but tasted overly sweet and perfumey from too much Grey Goose la poire and not enough fresh ginger bite. Though if you've got a Cosmo-swilling, girly-drink lover in your world, this may be just the ticket.
There were moments when menu items seemed a little too casual, leaving us to wonder if we couldn't have simply stayed at home after all. Burrata with fig jam, domestic prosciutto, asparagus spears, and grilled ciabatta is nice, but easy enough to cobble together from a cheese-shop haul. We had similar "meh" feelings about a charred corn salad served in butter lettuce leaves that were a little rough around the edges, and topped with a lime vinaigrette and crispy tortilla strips that weren't enough to convince us we were eating pro cooking, not home cooking.
A fragrant tower of big cardamom doughnut holes was all we needed to forget about all that. With crisp outer shells and spongey cake-like interiors, these textural marvels were almost cotton candy-like in their levity.
And what kind of Excelsior restaurant serves family-secret soul food pies made by an ex-cop who went back to his late mother's recipes and started baking? This one. Addie's Sweet Secrets pies in rotating flavors are a mainstay of the dessert list — a slice of pecan was as impeccably understated as any grandma's: tender crust, caramelized brown sugar filling, and crisp nuts finished with a cloud of whip.
It's a touch like this, taken together with the wrought-iron chandeliers, honest bowl of pasta, marble bar, stiff drinks, good old-fashioned steak sandwich, and fall-over-itself friendly service that will continue to get Caribbean-tanned tycoons, magnates, and execs out of their well-appointed manses and back among the people.
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