Keep Smiling 

Good People and Mediocre Food at the Hobnob Grille

IF ONE WERE TO JUDGE restaurants by the same measure as beauty pageant contestants, the Hobnob Grille would be a shoe-in for Miss Congeniality. A block north of Belmont on 33rd, it's a lovely, clean restaurant with an attractive border of large windows for optimal neighborhood watching, staffed by an incredibly likeable crew.

In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest they provide some of the friendliest service in town. Case in point: Their website suggests you'll receive a wink and a smile "every time you step through our door," but I was startled to actually receive a wink and a smile on my first visit. Beyond that, I believe the goodwill is genuine. The smiles are real, as is the laidback humor, the small talk, and the concern over the quality of your experience.

But there's the rub. How can you look into those smiling faces and tell them that even though you're enjoying how the bright, tart blue cheese dressing on your iceberg wedge is balanced by the chewy bits of bacon, you just can't deal with the rusty, discolored leaves on the outside? What is the nicest way possible to explain that the Philly cheese steak is too dry? Or that the baseball sirloin is medium well on one side, and medium rare on the other?

This is not meant to be patronizing. It's an honest question, one I think most would confront with a silent nod and a thumbs up, only to then look despairingly at their dinner partner. Sure, you'll come back one day, if only for a cocktail and good company at a refuge just far enough from the drunken hipster idiocy one block south.

But not for the food. Consider the confused gravy that came with the pan-fried chicken. It arrived at the table looking dry and congealed. A good stir with a fork helped matters, but a French fry dipped into the floury mass came out dry. To make matters worse, the chicken was overcooked on the outside, leaving a hard crust that should have been just crisp. The accompanying broccoli was unseasoned and lukewarm, and the entrée's $15 price tag completely unjustified.

I suspect that Hobnob is struggling to time their orders. The issues with dryness and doneness smack of a chef firing orders too early and keeping them warm while waiting for others to finish. This could be the key to some of their trouble.

I believe in the creativity of the Hobnob Grille—a mini-burger decked out in chipotle aioli and sun-dried tomato was spot-on if a bit overdone, and a flatbread appetizer with sharp cheddar, caramelized onions, and red pepper was very good—but they're stymied by execution. For instance, I'd like to see them make the leap to add a few anchovies to the focaccia crouton-wrapped romaine, and go ahead and call it a Caesar salad. The large circular crouton in the center of the salad is a nice trick, but without the salty tones of anchovy, it just tastes like a stand-in that missed the mark.

I respect the effort, but in the end effort without payoff leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Still, I commend Hobnob Grille for their service. I'll take a wink over an exasperated sigh any day. I just hope someday soon the food will match the smiles.

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