I can hardly believe I'm saying this, but indeed, there's plenty of action on north Central Avenue. I'm talking about Corbin's Bar & Grill, a three-year-old eatery that I recently discovered on a visit to the neighborhood.
A friend and I had originally stopped by a new South American-themed wine bar, Bomberos, a couple of doors over. But since the wine bar was more of a casual nosh spot than a dinner destination, I couldn't help eyeing up Corbin's when my stomach started to rumble. Not to mention, Corbin's is housed in a funky, bright-yellow building that looks like Pee-wee's Playhouse on acid. It was impossible not to notice.
And once I finally made it there for dinner, I was more than a little surprised. You hear "bar and grill," and it's hard to think of anything special — heck, every neighborhood has something called a "bar and grill," so why make the hike up to Sunnyslope?
If anything, go just to see how Corbin's has raised the bar on the definition of a local hangout. And if you don't live in the 'hood, expect to be a little envious.
First of all, the place was hip but not saturated with hipsters. The clientele was truly all over the map, from young families with sassy kids chomping on big burgers to older couples sipping Chardonnay to twentysomethings mingling at the bar over martinis and Belgian beer. Some people looked as though they were on dates, and others seemed to be regulars having a relaxed meal at an old favorite. Servers and bartenders were chipper and chatty, sincerely enthused. There was so much going on in this bustling, noisy restaurant — even on random weeknights — that it was sort of comforting.
The atmosphere was pretty cool, too. Out front, a blazing fireplace gave the patio a warm glow. Inside, the décor was unexpectedly sleek, with two dramatic bamboo sculptures positioned at both ends of a low white wall that separated the bar area from the dining room. Tilted panes of glass sprouting up from it reflected small yellow lamps above each table, while rows of booze bottles gleamed from backlit panels behind the bar. Staggered white ceiling blocks created a basket-weave effect that was repeated in the black leather seat upholstery. And a big window at the back allowed a clear view right into the kitchen.
As far as the menu goes, it wasn't groundbreaking cuisine, just classic American crowd-pleasers done well — everything from wings and salads to sandwiches and stick-to-your-ribs entrees. Meanwhile, the bar served up reasonably priced wines, specialty cocktails like the Dreamsicle and the Oatmeal Cookie, and lots of beer, amusingly categorized as "corporations," "international conglomerates," and "artisans." That means you can knock back a couple of Coors Lights while your beer snob companions content themselves with Chimay or Young's Double Chocolate Stout.
Appetizers were great, and definitely sized for sharing, from thick, sweet onion rings coated in buttermilk batter, to fat slices of addicting pesto cheese bread. In particular, I'm thinking of the Via de Nachos. I went for the supposedly smaller "plate" over the "platter," and was amazed at how huge it was. Really, two people could've made a meal out of the heap of crispy, seasoned tortilla chips dotted with gobs of melted cheddar and queso fresco. The kitchen didn't skimp on the meat (I chose pulled pork), and the whole thing was piled with chopped tomatoes, black olives, jalapeños, and paper-thin slices of red onion.
A stone-fired, open-faced quesadilla had a similar oversize appeal, with a thick layer of cheese, sliced portobellos, roasted red peppers, and Kalamata olives atop a thin, crunchy tortilla. When it landed on our table, my hungry friends grabbed at it as if it were a hot pizza.
The pulled-pork sandwich was one of my favorite dishes, packed with tender, smoky meat that I ended up eating with a fork. I didn't mind the bun, but when it came down to it, space in my stomach was already at a premium. The side of tangy barbecue sauce had a nice, peppery kick. The wasabi tuna sandwich was punchy, too, with radish, red onion, and wasabi mayo on top of a fresh slab of seared tuna. And the burgers I tried were juicy and filling — one was jazzed up with cracked black peppercorns, caramelized onions, and Dijon sauce, while another was smothered with cheddar, applewood-smoked bacon, red onion, and barbecue sauce.
I'm already craving Corbin's sautéed scallops, which were served over baby greens and slices of rustic bread — an unusual presentation, to be sure. The scallops were bathed in a silky sauce that really hooked me: butter, Pernod, jalapeños, fennel, and lots of garlic. At first, I tasted tang and heat, and then the luscious, heady garlic kicked in. Needless to say, I cleaned my plate.
The chicken tender platter was straightforward, with deep golden strips of fried chicken breast and a creamy chipotle ranch dip. Blackened halibut, a moist fillet drizzled with tequila lime butter, was garnished with a jumble of pineapple dried-cranberry salsa that added interest to bites of otherwise undistinguished mashed potatoes. And the garlicky Corbin's chicken, stuffed with queso fresco, green chiles, and sour cream, was draped with a delicious tomatillo cream sauce.
For dessert, the sweets I sampled were just as nicely prepared as everything else, and they looked mouthwatering. The turtle sundae, served in a humble martini glass, looked basic enough, but it turned out to be really rich, with dense vanilla bean gelato, homemade whipped cream, caramel sauce, fudge, nuts, sugared chocolate tortilla strips, and a cherry on top. Meanwhile, the warm walnut brownie was just as luscious, topped with more of that vanilla bean gelato.
No, it wasn't anything fancy, but still . . . for a humble bar and grill, Corbin's certainly blew away my expectations.