There's a triad of advice thrown around in my social circle that stems from the 1956 book "A Walk on the Wild Side" by Nelson Algren. The quote starts "Never play cards with a man named Doc, never eat at a place named Mom's. ..." We always alter the last line to "never eat bar food if you have a choice."
It has been my experience that most known bars serve food because the state of Virginia makes them. I am not speaking of the restaurant-slash-cocktail business. I am describing the arena where drink orders often include the word "bomb." No one is at these places for fine dining. French fries are easy stomach lining for what typically occurs at a bar — drinking.
I was hoping for something else at the new and decadent bar Off the Hookah. It is definitely different, though the differences are not all positive. In the Hat Factory building downtown, the two-story bar is lavish. Red lights, high ceilings and half-concealed dancers are upstairs while large cozy booths and blue lights are down.
On a recent evening, we arrive upstairs to find a private party. We stand awkwardly inside the doorway hoping someone might notice. No luck. So we hunt for someone to assist. Making our way downstairs, we are faced with an empty dining room. Finally locating a server, we order drinks, take in our surroundings and check out the extensive menu.
Predominantly Mediterranean, the menu is tailored for groups with sharable and affordable small plates, appetizers and sushi. Entrees (these same small plates) head into expensive territory with the addition of rice and a never-described vegetable of the day. We decide on the sampler platter ($16), myriad small plates and the spider roll ($12). The sampler is huge but the surface is overrun by fattoosh salad — slightly wilted lettuce and tomatoes tossed with a refreshing light lemon dressing. The salad would benefit immensely if it weren't too soggy for the pita chips. Long, thinly rolled stuffed grape leaves are delicately spiced but could benefit from being served warm. Also lukewarm, falafel patties taste great but are tough.
Our lollipop lamb chops ($14) arrive on the well side of medium (we weren't asked about temperature) and have a nice outside sear. The chicken kebab ($8) seems pricey for a single skewer but it is tender and highly seasoned. The spider roll never makes it to our table.
On another occasion, I stop in for a quick bite and run into more service issues, napkins and utensils forgotten and dirty dishes. Wandering through the hazy hookah smoke ($20-25), I am again seated in an empty dining room. I attempt to order sushi for the second time but am foiled by its unavailability; I settle on a hummus appetizer and a gyro. The hummus ($6) is a meritorious rendition, heavy on the tahini and served with thin, crispy pita. The gyro ($7) is nondescript but adequate and served with a tasty cucumber sauce.
The setting is effusive and unrestrained. This is not the place for a quiet dining experience — the music is appropriately loud and at times had me dancing in my chair.
If the kinks in service are fixed, this bar might have me altering our favorite quotation yet again. S
Off the Hookah
140 Virginia St.