The horseshoe bar (and big buoy light). Photo: © tablehopper.com.
A mixed half dozen of the baked oysters. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
A plate of golden (yes, they are fried) milk-braised celery hearts with Old Bay aioli. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Fried pie. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
The first time I walked into ~HARD WATER~, I was like, wait, that’s it? It’s not a large space by any means, but it packs a big wallop, in the form of its absolutely insane whiskey collection. There’s a back wall, lit from behind, that illuminates bottle after glimmering bottle of some of the finest whiskeys you could ever hope to splash down your gullet. Whether you just have $5 for one ounce of Smooth Ambler “Old Scout” seven-year rye, or $100 for a two-ounce pour of out-of-production Hirsch Select 25-year rye, you are way covered. Flights, yeah, they got that. This is what happens when bar beastmaster Erik Adkins releases what he’s been bunkering for the past 10 years. (You can read more about the whiskey program here.)
The cocktails are charmingly priced at $11, and I recommend starting with the Manhattan-like Cocktail à la Louisiane, made with Rittenhouse 100 rye, Carpano Antica, Benedictine, absinthe, and Peychaud’s bitters. The crisp bartenders in their ties also make a mean mint julep, and you should peek at the Bourbon Lift for a liquid dessert—it’s a solid match for the banana-butterscotch fried pies ($8) that taste like bananas Foster inside (although the banana notes of the Lion’s Pride four-grain whiskey make for an notable pairing too). The staff is so good at recommendations for what to drink—I have been impressed at their depth of knowledge.
But Hard Water is not just a whiskey bar. Far from it. Chef de cuisine Melissa Perfit [UPDATE: she has since departed] is doing a bang-up job in the kitchen, with an updated Southern menu that is quite smart: whether you want to put the hurt on yourself or just snack, you have options, baby. There are selections from the raw bar, or go the decadent path with a half dozen of the baked oysters ($22), which are the color of mahogany. Try all three kinds; everyone I know has a different favorite. Perfit did some kitchen duty at Hog Island and Bar Crudo—you’ll note the seafood here is tops.
You gotta try the ingenious (and golden) milk-braised celery hearts ($12) fried in panko (be sure to give ‘em a couple shakes of the spicy vinegar on the counter to make things pop), and a bowl of the meaty pork belly cracklins ($8) are built for bourbon sippin’.
I would order the fried chicken ($20). Every. Single. Time. Fried in rice flour, the exterior is ethereally light, crisp, and well seasoned, and it’s damn juicy too. And gluten-free! Three pieces of piping hot Mary’s chicken for $20, whatcha waiting for? On a misty SF night, the silky, creamy, herbaceous braised rabbit ($22) should be strongly considered, while the perfectly cooked wild Gulf flounder ($24) is a hearty (and spice-sparked) plate. Perfit rocks Southern classics too: seafood gumbo ($24), dirty rice ($8), and big leaves of collards ($8), all so good.
Give me a horseshoe bar and I am happy, and the marble one here under the big, barnacled, buoy light is alluring, although I wish the dang wood seats hurt my heinie a little less. (I’m not tall enough to sit comfortably on them.) There are some other seats at high-top tables, but try to avoid the ones near the door if you can—you’ll be buffeted with wind every time the door opens. (Just keep drinking bourbon.)
Hard Water has an upbeat vibe (with LCD Soundsystem and Led Zep and Miike Snow playing), and is equally appealing during the day for lunch (it looks great in the light), after work, or in the evening. Charles Phan, Olle Lundberg, Erik Adkins, and their talented team have created a cool addition to the waterfront—stylistically, it feels like a good fit. It’s just the menu that poses the significant challenge of how you’re going to fit everything in your belly.
Update: chef de cuisine Melissa Perfit has left.