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Glamorous bar food

WHAT COMES TO MIND WHEN YOU THINK "BAR FOOD"?

For most, bar food means dishes like Buffalo chicken wings, fried cheese, fried stuffed jalapenos and the many variations on the nacho that dominate today's bar food scene. And while those options are all fine, especially good accompanying a pitcher of beer with friends watching an afternoon ballgame at the bar, it's not what every bar guest has in mind when hunger pangs hit.

At first glance, the phrase "upscale bar food" may seem an oxymoron. But more and more restaurants across the country are treating their bar patrons to options--whether just a snack or enough to make a meal--that are as elegant and thoughtfully crafted as the menu items in the dining room. No longer just a forgettable dish of "whatever" to tide guests over, bar food today is taking on a glam factor all its own.

At Radius, a classy, artful destination of a dining establishment in Boston's Financial District, bar foods have an upscale twist. Popular with the neighborhood's after-work crowd, the 50-seat bar is consistently packed during that "unwind-time" of 4:30 to 7:30. Simple finger foods include the indulgent Parmigiano-and truffle-dusted French fries with lemon gremolata (finely minced lemon zest, garlic and parsley); crispy salt and pepper calamari; and tempura asparagus sprinkled with curried coarse salt.

For more substantial fare, cocktailers can choose a prime steak sandwich (with caramelized onions, mushrooms, farmhouse cheddar and special sauce). Radius' "backyard barbecue" (boneless pork ribs confit, coleslaw and watermelon) or an ever-changing tasting of ceviches.

Esti Parsons, Radius' general manager, points out that from the time it opened in late 1999, the goal has been to create a bar setting that's more an extension of the dining room than a distinct and separate space. What the bar offers its diners is flexibility, a chance for customers to pick the pace and content of their evening, whether it's a quick after-work drink with friends or an impromptu grazing dinner from the bar menu while lingering over conversation.

When the after-work rush winds down, the bar crowd transitions to more dinner-minded patrons. Single diners often prefer eating in the bar because of its more relaxed, convivial mood. Cocktail fans might choose to eat in the bar to interact with their favorite bartenders and try their latest creations with dinner. "And couples, too," adds Parsons, "who don't want to commit to the dining room, the bar offers them a slightly more casual way to eat." It also makes a great option for those making last-minute decisions to dine out when the reservation book's already at capacity, making the bar a great refuge for procrastinators.

COUNTRY-STYLE GOURMET

Nestled among rolling hills rather than downtown skyscrapers, is Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a stunning Hudson Valley setting for this offshoot of the original Blue Hill restaurant in New York City. Chef Dan Barber and his team work within a chef's playground on this 80-acre former Rocke-feller estate, 6 1/2 acres of cultivated fields and 10 acres for livestock pastures that produce countless pounds of vegetables, fruits, herbs, free-range eggs, chicken, pork and even holiday turkeys. Cows used to populate what is now the dining room; the adjacent lounge was originally, and rather appropriately, the milking room.

Enough of the property's harvest makes it into the Blue Hill kitchen to have a distinct regional, seasonal influence, which spills over into the bar area as well. About two-thirds of ordered cocktails come from the house cocktail list, with recent seasonal selections that included an Opal Basil Mojito, Rhubarb Cosmopolitan (raw rhubarb juice used in place of the cranberry juice), Hendricks Gin Cucumber Martini and Elderflower Royale (sparkling wine with house-made elderflower syrup).

Nibbles available on the lounge menu include various skewers (the selection changes almost daily), braised pork croquette with pickled cauliflower, chicken liver terrine or a Blue Hill charcuterie platter. Customers have also welcomed the opportunity to snag one of the 11 seats at the lounge's stone-topped bar and sample from the full dining room menu (the more informal lounge seating isn't conducive to the elaborate dishes from the regular menu).

Blue Hill's general manager Philippe Gouze says that the lounge gets a good workout both for diners lingering before their tables are ready and for those who make the bar their destination of choice. Word's out about this destination-worthy dining spot in upstate New York, so tables can be hard to come by on weekends, when the lounge is a particularly popular fallback plan for dinner. The dining room menu changes to varying degrees in direct relationship with what's being harvested on the property. A recent summer menu included garden green gazpacho with yogurt sorbet, roasted chicken from the property with farro, spinach and sugar snap peas, and spinach and pork tortellini with morels, broccoli rabe and cauliflower.

Burgers have become big bar business at Cascadia in Seattle's dynamic Belltown neighborhood. It's not quite what you'd expect from such an elegant restaurant, which opened at the height of the city's dot-com boom, catering to those high-end nouveau riche tastes. As the economy has shifted, so has Cascadia broadened its appeal to bargain-minded diners, offering prix-fixe menus in the still very elegant dining room.

LUXE BURGERS

More notable has been the development of a bustling bar program, which has made Cascadia's bar among the busiest on a strip of popular bars. An early hit on the bar menu was the mini-burgers with cheese and a luxurious drizzle of black truffle oil. Three dollars each regularly, the burgers are just a dollar apiece during happy hour. They're so popular that chef/owner Kerry Sear recently expanded the burger offerings to add salmon and house-made vegetarian burgers (using bulgur wheat), as well as a slew of optional toppings--including truffle salt, pancetta, grilled onions and seared foie gras--for a build-your-own custom burger experience.

You can pair those distinctive burgers with well-crafted cocktails that include their signature Alpine Martini (vodka with a small scoop of Douglas fir sorbet), Pometini (vodka, lemon juice, pomegranate juice) and the Mango Mojito. And while burgers reign, there are plenty of other lounge menu options to go with those cocktails, including skillet roasted prawns in a green curry sauce, grilled halibut and chips with rosemary French fries, artisan cheeses and local raw oysters on the half-shell. Bar patrons can also order from the full Cascadia menu, which features a seasonally-updated menu that might include whiskey smoked salmon, organic sweet carrot soup with pickled ginger, green curry rubbed lamb and pan-seared red mullet fillet.

Frisson in San Francisco is one of the hottest new openings in that city this past year. The room literally glows with its amber-orange-red hues, and it buzzes with the activity of the throngs who flock here nightly to get a taste of chef Sarah Schafer's (formerly of Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park in New York) contemporary American fare, served to the throbbing beat of a DJ in the later hours of the evening.

CREATIVE CONCOCTIONS

Duggan McDonnell, Frisson's bar manager, works with nectars, essential oils and other distinct ingredients to create concoctions that stand out from the crowd. He calls their menu a little "avant-garde, using flavors in fun new ways." Le Long Frisson is a signature, with Hangar One Mandarin Blossom, Marie Brizard peach liqueur, essence of litsea cubeba (berries from this plant produce an intensely lemony essence), lime and cranberry. His Pomegranate Manhattan starts off with Maker's Mark, then adds pomegranate molasses, Italian bitter liqueur Cynar and orange bitters. And the Renaissance Negroni replaces the traditional sweet vermouth (which he calls the weakest link in that classic cocktail) with Liqueur de Poete from the Germain-Robin distillery in Ukiah, CA.

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