My first impression of Sidebar was that its hushed, flattering and amber-glowing lighting plus its sophisticated and jazzy soundtrack preserved much of the ambiance I liked at the old Brownstone on Main — the defunct Downtown restaurant whose space this Dayton import finally replaces. My second impression of the just-opened Sidebar was that it might be sorely misnamed.
See its bar — and hooch in general — are hardly off-to-the-side afterthoughts. No, this place has a prominent and nice-sized wine list peppered with many reliable, baby blue-chip bottles. Even more front and center, though, is Sidebar’s heavy emphasis on classic and precisely prepared cocktails concocted with freshly squeezed fruit juices, an array of bitters (some housemade) and lots of first-rate boozes (e.g. the marvelous Manhattan is shaken with Wild Turkey Rye and Carpano Antica vermouth).
So get your Negroni, Sidecar or Pisco Sour on (most cocktails are $9), enjoy the free, garlicky and addictive hummus and pita chips — a generous upgrade over most nondescript bread services — and peruse the somewhat unusual menu. I say unusual because, while there are salad, pizza and dessert sections, Sidebar largely categorizes its tapas-y food by main ingredient instead of, say, appetizer, small plate and entree.
For instance, the Scallops Parmesan listed only (perhaps misleadingly) under “Seafood” are in truth a starter — a lavish, visually arresting and impossible-to-resist starter. At $18, they’re also a rather expensive starter. Still, considering you basically get both a cheese course and shellfish snack, and considering this easily feeds three royally, I think it’s worth it.
Three attractively shell-attached, huge, salty, chewy and crackly golden-brown-broiled cheese domes (similar to that great Italian munchie called “frico”) enclosed succulent and absolutely mammoth “wild caught” scallops steamed to perfection underneath those crispy and ballooned-out cheese tents. The scallops were also bathed in a creamy and tongue-tickling Huancaina sauce — whose Peruvian roots clue you into Sidebar’s lusty and garlicky Latin-tinged cuisine.
More affordable starters — if far less dramatic — were the perfectly fine Chicken Croquettes ($9 for six, they’re simply listed under “Chicken” — get it?). These plump, expertly deep-fried mini zeppelins came with nice and crispy shells, mashed-potato-with-chicken-bit centers and two potent condiments: a heavy-duty garlic mayo and a salty and spicy, Peruvian-type rocoto chili sauce.
Kicking off dinner with the sharable Quinoa Salad ($12) was another solid Peruvian-linked option. The Andean-derived grain arrived with a bright and citrusy dressing tempered by rich toasted pine nuts and sweet red peppers. Providing ample (and main-course worthy) heft were two skewers of super tender grilled beef.
Sidebar’s interesting pizzas also merit attention. Their puffy, handmade, crunchy and medium-thick crusts can be topped with shellfish and pesto ($19), lamb shank and arugula ($18), Peruvian-style stir-fried beef or even lots of lively veggies in a terrific pie ($14) enriched by blistered mozzarella and provolone.
A couple nice, full-meal-style dishes were the Pork Filet Mignon ($18) and the Lamb Shank ($20). The former came with three seared and thick (if unlarge) medallions of spork-tender meat, stiff and garlicky skin-on mashers, coins of sweetly roasted squashes, scene-stealing, long-cooked purple cabbage and a neat port wine and raisin sauce.
More bang for the buck can be had with the Lamb Shank — the best “entree” I sampled here. Riffing on osso buco, this nice-sized pile of succulent, slowly braised meat with stewy tomato, wine and mirepoix-aided flavors and a (soft) Milanese-like risotto side dish helped leave me with a very fine opening week’s impression of Sidebar.