It's all a bit mystifying why Charles Phan — who created both Slanted Door and Wo Hing General Store, and who just published a cookbook, Vietnamese Home Cooking, on the cuisine he's been making for the past two decades — would suddenly open not one but two New Orleans-themed restaurants in the same month. But he has. And at least at Hard Water — his bourbon bar on the Embarcadero, the more developed of the two concepts — he's proven that he can do upscale Southern as well as he can do upscale Asian. Aren't we all allowed to reinvent ourselves every once in a while?
To Phan himself, it's not a remarkable departure. He says the idea for Hard Water came about after the success of a fried chicken dish he served at the La Cocina Street Food Festival, and right around that time happened to see the space at Pier 3 and got the idea to open a "cool little chicken shack." The concept evolved into a New Orleans-themed bourbon bar. "I've always loved Southern cooking. I do it a lot at home for myself," he says. "I just happen to like bourbon a lot. So it all came together."
As he was developing Hard Water, the new SFJAZZ center in Hayes Valley at Franklin and Fell approached him about helping out with cocktails and concessions (Phan also runs the Moss Room and Academy Café at the California Academy of Sciences). Because both restaurants would be opening around the same time, he says, it just seemed easier to have them both follow the same playbook — especially since New Orleans food fit right in with the jazz theme. But he plans to change up the food at SFJAZZ's place, called South, every few months, so don't get too attached to the gumbo or cornmeal-crusted fried oysters.
South might be a restaurant in evolution, but the Southern theme is there to stay at Hard Water. The fried chicken's still on the menu, three pieces of rice flour-dredged chicken on a plate, accompanied by a pepper jelly that coats the crispy skin in a sweet, faintly spicy glaze. This is the kind of fried chicken where juices run down your arm after you crack the crust — if anything, one of my pieces was slightly underdone, but the rest was cooked to juicy perfection.
Chicken's only one of several fried things on the menu, however. Pork belly cracklings are crispy and fatty, coated with a spicy salt mixture — the seasoning was a little much for repeated bites, and could have used a dipping sauce to tone it down. Fried alligator was a big hit, though: a fun, smart take on popcorn chicken. Alligator really does taste like white meat, albeit with a more succulent texture, and here the seasoned cornmeal batter and chile aioli drizzled over the top added spicy flair.
My favorite fried dish wasn't meat at all: the crispy milk-braised celery hearts, which elevated the humble vegetable into something worth exclaiming over. The hearts are braised long enough to break down celery's fibrous qualities so it's just a chewy, cohesive mass of vegetable, dredged in bread crumbs, fried to a crisp, and served with a dipping sauce heavy on the Old Bay. It was a great bar snack, made all the better for its uniqueness.
Salt and spice were the main flavor profiles of all the food — not a bad thing considering that the drink menu consists almost entirely of bourbons. Along with an impressive two-page list of bourbons that Phan, his architect and longtime friend Olie Lundberg, and longtime Slanted Door bar manager Erik Adkins have collected over the years, there are bourbon flights (ranging from a $20 Craft Distillers Flight to a $100 Van Winkle Flight), and cocktails that are dangerously easy to drink, like the refreshing Roffignac, made with Rittenhouse 100 rye, lemon, grapefruit, German raspberry-vinegar syrup, and soda.
The crowd is pretty much what you'd expect from a restaurant on the edge of the Financial District specializing in expensive, hard-to-find bourbon — one night after work the small space was just a sea of blue button-downs — but the staff is anything but pretentious, and no one seemed to be taking his or her drinking too seriously. Part of it is the room's layout, a horseshoe bar flanked by a few side counters that foster a sense of community. There's an open kitchen and raw bar, but the room's focal point is a backlit bourbon collection across an entire wall, accessed by bartenders with a library ladder. If you snag a counter seat facing the bay, you can watch boats rocking peacefully in the water and, depending on where you sit, the Bay Lights in the evening.
This week the restaurant plans to start serving lunch, including a quick-access to-go window. The midday menu will, I hope, feature the superb braised rabbit — really, more like a rabbit pot pie. Rabbit is a flavorful lean meat, and here it's mixed with sage, celery, and other earthy spices to make a stew, and topped with fluffy buttermilk dumplings. It's maybe a bit heavy for these summery days we've been having lately, but when the fog rolls back in, it's the kind of dish that strikes the right balance between familiarity and experimentation.
Historically, the Embarcadero hasn't exactly been somewhere you'd go out for the night, but with the opening of Hard Water, along with Michael Chiarello's Spanish tapas spot Coqueta, and the Seaglass restaurant in the new Exploratorium, it's become a dining and drinking destination almost overnight. To Phan, though, his foray into Americana is just a place he and his friends can nerd out about their love of bourbon. "Olie [Lundberg] and I are immigrants to this country," he says. "We found something to love about this place."