HARBOR PLACE 96 Union, 652-9299 lunch and dinner daily, bar menu until 1:30 a.m.
WITH NO END IN sight for lines at Beppo’s and Cheesecake Factory, it’s nice to discover a local boy with a lovely restaurant. Twenty-five-year-old chef Anthony Hubbard—who got his start cooking at Camp Orkila, of all the cute places for a local boy to begin his life’s work—has expanded our downtown dining options in a most welcome direction. Harbor Place, with its gorgeous deck, posh but not overly so decor, cozy booths for two, and sparkly little bar, may be the restaurant that can overcome the unfortunate karma left from former tenants Leo Melina and 96 Union. It’s got a great happy hour, an inexpensive and filling lunch, attentive service, and some unusual treats on the menu; there’s no reason why it can’t live a long and happy life.
The lunch menu has both Thai and South American influences, an odd mix that shows either brilliant creativity or a lack of clear vision, depending on your perspective. The soups are agreeable, whether you choose smooth and comforting potato ramp ($3 cup, $5 bowl), chunky (and still comforting) razor clam ($4/$6), or tart (and slightly less comforting) “Five Lilies” ($3/$5). This last one is described as “a lighter version of French onion” and is a veritable family reunion for every sort of onion on the planet. Its stock is almost vinegary, and there’s no bubbling lid of cheese in sight. The first sip was something of a shock, yet the blend of sweet onions was an addictive counterpoint to the sourness. It was hard to let that little cup go when the entr饳 were delivered; less talking and more eating were definitely in order.
The crab cakes ($14) are the priciest item at midday and would’ve been worth it but for an ill-advised dressing that drowned the accompanying greens, turning the last cake into a salty mess and leaving the salad nearly inedible. The three plump little crab pillows were crispy and golden, with shreds of meat rather than lumps and a mild sweetness from macadamia nuts. Pepper-seared steak with wild mushrooms ($8) had bland peppers and nary a mushroom in sight. Happily, it was remade instantly, filled with all sorts of chewy (and unidentifiable) fungal goodies, a much more interesting medley than the expected shiitakes. The ubiquitous burger ($7) is a great one and weighs in at a drippingly juicy half-pound; mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, and roasted green chilies ride along in cute, tiny dishes.
THE SAME MIX OF influences is in evidence at dinner, but it comes together more tightly. The Hudson Valley foie gras ($12), served with smooth quince sauce and pistachios, does what perfect foie gras should—melt like butter and taste like meat. If you’ve never tried it and don’t get why diners on Iron Chef consistently greet it with shrieks of delight, by all means introduce yourself to god’s own liver. The salads show that lunch’s unfortunate dressing was perhaps an anomaly. The Caesar ($5) isn’t overwhelmingly garlicky, as are so many of late, and includes a couple of those crispy-cheesy bread slices that are the best fruit to ever fall from the crouton tree. Every bite of the spring produce salad ($7) was sweet, salty, and crunchy all at once, combining asparagus and baby spinach with oranges and goat cheese; it’s very springlike indeed—your fancy may turn to thoughts of love.
The Moroccan honey quail ($17) with grilled fennel and crisp baby potatoes explains once and for all why honey is mentioned so frequently in poetry. The quail was dismantled but not deboned, which led to theft of the tiny drumsticks with their absolutely luscious sauce. A touch of sweetness, a delicate mix of spices— is it legal to raid commercial kitchens in search of recipes? Tender and barely pink, a thick pork chop ($21) from Niman Ranch was piled with calabaza apple chutney, making a sophisticated, less cloying version of Grandma’s pork chops and applesauce. Taku River salmon ($18) showcased the chef’s talent with our seafaring friends and offered nothing but clean, simple flavor: a generously sized slab, perfectly grilled, perched atop a simple bowl of rice and Swiss chard. The crispy whole snapper ($29) was the only disappointment, most of which came from the presentation. It’s hard to enjoy dinner when it’s looking at you.
Desserts are good, but not enchanting. Cr譥 caramel ($4) wins Miss Congeniality, and its rich vanilla flavor got a standing ovation during the talent competition. Two tarts—Meyer lemon and “signature” chocolate ($5 each)—are diametrically opposed forces, with the lightly floral lemon flirting across the tongue and the dense layer of almost-fudge firmly resisting even a touch of frivolity. The fruit crisp ($5), served warm with ice cream, is sized to share and does every sticky, juicy thing dessert should.
The wine-by-the-glass list is outrageously long and bizarrely inexpensive. How can you go wrong with 50 choices at 5 bucks each? The staff is equally happy to help those in a rush or those who wish to linger, but you should probably linger. If Hubbard’s doing all this at age 25, who knows what might happen if you hang around until he’s 26?