It’s one of the more consistent realities in the restaurant world: An establishment that tries to please everyone usually winds up pleasing no one. With the possible exception of old-school Greek diners, we’ve found that a kitchen concentrating on one type of cuisine and attempting to perfect it is much more likely to succeed than one that tries to provide customers with a quesadilla appetizer before their main course of veal parmigiana.
That said, Avenue Kitchen & Bar, the latest occupant of the 36th Street space that housed one-time Hampden favorites Dogwood and Le Garage, is attempting to defy that rule. Consider its menu, including items such as tacos, ceviche, and poke, fried chicken, steak, and shellfish, not to mention grilled octopus, plus the ubiquitous crab cake. The restaurant’s focus is all over the place, yet surprisingly, chef Audiel Vera (the brother of Cocina Luchadoras owner Rosalyn Vera) manages to pull most of it off.
When we arrived for our initial visit a few months after it opened, we weren’t quite sure what to make of its setup. Its small street-level cafe, dubbed Sidebar, offers a far more streamlined menu and only a few tables. The man behind the counter directed us through a set of doors, past which we descended to the main bar and dining room, which was simply appointed with wooden tables, metal chairs, a cement floor, and exposed brick.
We immediately appreciated the way our server, on this night general manager Carlos Oseguera, walked us through the menu with an impressive depth of knowledge—and honesty. Given that we were there on a Wednesday, we opted for a $20 bottle of wine (daily specials, including a $13 whole lobster on Thursdays, are printed at the bottom of the main menu). He steered us away from a Cabernet he doesn’t particularly care for and toward a delightful Tempranillo.
His food recommendations were spot-on, as well. We started with three falafel sliders, which were almost too hearty for an appetizer, but still an excellent way to begin our meal. Luckily, we still had room for the perfectly prepared pork ribs, which are slow-cooked for eight hours then cooked sous vide. One of the vegetarian offerings, an exotic mushroom sub, was among the most inventive dishes we’ve tried in a while. Multiple varieties of fungi are marinated in olive oil and mirin, then sautéed with garlic and herbs. Topped with sweet peppers and barbeque aioli and stuffed inside a soft roll, it’s the rare vegetarian dish even a meat lover would devour.
On a second visit, we enjoyed a spicy chicken sandwich and shrimp po’ boy, assembled with pickles, greens, tomato, and just the right amount of sassy remoulade. Only the rather bland fish tacos were uninspiring. That’s okay—there is no shortage of other things to try next time. And there definitely will be a next time.
AVENUE KITCHEN & BAR 911 W. 36th St., Hampden, 443-961-8515. HOURS Sun.-Thurs. 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Sidebar, 12 p.m.-“till” seven days a week. PRICES Sandwiches: $10-18 Salads: $8-14; Entrees: $13-32. AMBIANCE Modern minimalist.