Jason Ambrose's new venture is so tiny that I almost don't want to talk about it. When the renowned chef and co-owner of Salt opened up his micro-sized bar on an obscure corner in Locust Point at the end of last year, skeptics wondered whether anybody would be able to find it. But by the time I visited on a frigid Friday evening in mid-February, the place was so packed that I nearly fell on my knees in gratitude when one of the five two-tops (the place holds 30 people and doesn't take reservations) miraculously opened up.
Nearby Under Armour employees had obviously discovered the place, as had neighborhood folks and, most likely, Ambrose fans from all over the city. And after visiting twice now, I am truly ambivalent about spreading the word. The place is so sure-fire fabulous I may never get in again.
Clearly, 1157 Bar + Kitchen is the proverbial labor of love. When Ambrose, who still co-owns Salt, ceded the restaurant's kitchen duties to Matt Smith in 2014, he took some time to himself, but soon returned to the scene with the notion of going smaller and cheaper, getting back to basics with a simple neighborhood bar. Indeed, you'll find him in 1157's spotless, but miniscule, exhibition kitchen, looking out at the long, narrow bar-dining space and working contentedly over every item that comes off the line.
At Salt, Ambrose turned out cuisine that was consistently inventive and sophisticated, yet somehow retained its ability to powerfully evoke your best childhood food memories—whether you grew up in Cuba or Cleveland. While the offerings at 1157 may be a bit humbler, consisting mostly of small plates and sandwiches, they are no less enticing. The one drawback to Salt is that I always want to order everything on the menu. Here, you practically can! The menu is compact enough that I managed to sample nearly half of its items over two visits.
In an atmosphere where the waiters urge you to share, it seems heretical to order a single entree.
Of course, things will change with the seasons. But my wintry repasts were the soul of robust home-style cooking, with the little twists and international flavors that mark Ambrose's style. An off-the-bone braised oxtail stew floated over creamy brown-butter polenta; its intensely beefy shreds, baby carrots, and cipollini onions recalling the soup mom used to make. A crispy chorizo sausage sandwich topped with a fried duck egg combined Spanish and Latin influences with layers of Manchego cheese, sofrito, and avocado. And a braised short-rib melt turned out to be the most unctuously perfect winter sandwich in town. Topped with aged cheddar, horseradish mayo, and red onion, the beef was, well, meltingly good, recalling the best gastro-pub cuisine.
There's plenty of seafood, too: a silky tuna crudo, its pale palette enlivened with colorful Meyer lemon, balsamic, and a streak of carrot purée; a delicate saffron-laced shellfish bisque loaded with scallops, shrimp, and mussels. The octopus was so nice I tried it twice. Crispy on the outside and perfectly tender on the inside, it boasted a vibrant sweet-tart orange-chile mojo and sat aside a lively chickpea salad. Likewise, the addictive Korean fried-chicken wings with pickled veggies were bar food transformed, gorgeously lacquered with a fiery orange combination of chili paste and sweet soy. It's the sort of plate that appeals to both traditional and adventurous palates, catering to the bar's varied clientele.
Aside from the sandwiches, all of the above appear under the "Small Plates" heading on the menu. In such a crowded, convivial atmosphere, where the friendly bartenders/waiters happily recite their favorites and gently urge you to share, it almost seems heretical to order a single entree. Of the two on offer at this writing—wild boar ragout pasta with hedgehog mushrooms and rapini, and seared sea scallops—we ended up sharing the latter as if it were a small plate, divvying up the fat, tender scallops and eagerly diving into the accompanying root vegetables and garlicky greens.
The roster of drinks, drafts, and wines is equally compact. The four cocktails on offer will also likely undergo seasonal changes; they're composed of small-batch liquors and interesting combinations of flavors, and they're intoxicatingly well crafted by those amiable bartenders. The dozen wines by the glass come from out-of-the-way vintners and are reasonably priced, and you can get an offbeat draft like Breckenridge Brewery Agave wheat ale, as well as a Yuengling. And should you want to combine your libation with dessert, you could do no better than to order the adult milkshake. Mexican chocolate brings sweetness, the Mezcal brings smoke, and the cayenne and cinnamon bring spice. It's delightful. And so is 1157. So delightful, in fact, that I beg you not to go. At least, not when I'm heading there.
1157 BAR + KITCHEN 1157 Haubert Street, 443-449-5525.
HOURS Tues.-Thurs. 4 p.m.-12 a.m., Fri.-Sat. 4 p.m.-1 a.m., Sun. 1 p.m.-10 p.m. CUISINE Internationally influenced home-style cooking.
PRICES Small plates and sandwiches: $7-16; entrees: $25-26; desserts: $6-10.
ATMOSPHERE Micro-sized neighborhood bar with great food.