Once upon a time I was a pretty decent cook and even had my own little dessert catering business for a while, but these days, I’m predominantly an eater outer, not an eater inner. Which is why I sometimes forget basic baking fundamentals and do things like try and develop brownie recipes that have two pounds of chocolate in them. (It kind of worked. I mean, I ate them.) And after three straight weeks of recipe testing and developing at least eight hours a day for my upcoming Picnics cookbook, I was desperate to get out of the kitchen and back into a restaurant.
Fortunately, American Local had just opened its doors, in the Division Street corner spot formerly occupied by Caffe Pallino, directly across from Bollywood Theater deux. It was packed when we got there, so we took a spot at the communal table, next to three friendly strangers we later gave one of our bacon beignets to. It’s telling when you end up sharing your bacon beignets with total strangers at a restaurant, I always think that’s a good sign.
The restaurant’s concept reflects chef Chris Whaley and partner/front of the house gal Jenny Nickolaus’s affections for both classic regional American vittles and the buoyant spirit of an izakaya, which makes for a fun, energetic, comfortably casual atmosphere and eclectic menu. As far as drinks go, patrons are sipping everything from pints of Amnesia pale ale to organic sake, house ginger soda and Sokol Blosser’s Evolution sparkly, to butternut squash and rum cocktails (aptly described as being “sort of like pumpkin egg nog”).
Lots of shared small plates is the way to go here, and there are so many tempting choices–the menu is sectioned into bread-based small plates like the pillowy homemade fry bread mounded with mushrooms and sheep’s milk cheese and the aforementioned bacon beignets with housemade espellete powder and honey; seafood specialties like crispy grit cakes piled with spanking fresh salmon tartare, and rows of beautiful barbecued Netarts Bay oysters with chile, garlic and preserved lemon; a robust vegetable section with spunky watermelon radish salad with black garlic and scallions in nuoc cham, and Brussels sprouts with pickled jalapeño, blood orange and miso; a half dozen skewers like the tender octopus blanketed in harissa; and a handful of mains like the savory fried quinoa dish with fat pink shrimp and a perfectly oozy onsen egg.
You’ll find it difficult to neglect dessert here, in the face of choices like the maple cheesecake with stewed apples and candied kumquats, and luscious jarred parfait layered with banana cream, bananas, banana cake, and hazelnut praline.
Ah, such a delicious meal, a perfect re-entry into the eating out atmosphere after those first few long hard weeks of cleaning cocoa powder and lemon zest out of my oven knobs and ears, and we left fat and happy, with the merry cocktail clinking and buzz of conversation that are the hallmarks of a great neighborhood joint trailing us out the door.
Cuisine: New American
Executive Chef: Chris Whaley
Owner: Chris Whaley and Jenny Nickolaus
Atmosphere: Lively, bustling neighborhood joint with a laid back vibe
Outdoor seating: No
Noise Level: Boisterous
Dress Code: Casual
Bring the Kids: Yes
Bathrooms: Down the hall to the far left of the kitchen
Parking: Street parking is free and can be difficult to find
Cocktails: Yes, $9-$12
Beer: Yes, $3-$10
Wine: By the glass ($8-$11) and bottle ($39-$44)
Teetotalers: Housemade sodas, Mexican Coke
Coffee: Nossa Familia
Tea: Tao of Tea
Ideal Meal: Bacon beignets, grit cakes, watermelon radish salad, crab fried quinoa, banana parfait
Vegetarian Friendly: Yes