At Hard Water, Charles Phan’s whiskey bar on The Embarcadero, the whiskeys are arranged high up a 20-foot wall and there’s a ladder for the bartenders to reach the highest ones. It’s a towering shrine to brown liquor, one that outshines the accompanying food.
That’s not to say the New Orleans-inspired menu doesn’t have its head-turners.
The oysters Saint Charles, dressed in cayenne and butter, turned out to be a perfect companion to the whiskey — or whiskeys, who’s judging? — of your choice.
I had the Craft Distillers flight, consisting of 5 half-ounce pours whose profiles go from Sauternes-like sweetness to smoky shoe leather notes. The whiskeys cut through the oysters’ treatment in fat and heat, but I could still taste the sea.
Another standout was the milk-braised celery hearts, which are breaded and fried crisp. They are creamy on the inside and faintly tart. The cheesy grits, more buttery than cheesy, went well with everything we ordered, as did the vinegary collard greens.
Yet none of the entrees I ordered lived up to the beauty of the drinks, or the airy elegance of the rustic-meets-Space Age room.
The okra etoufee, while silky on the tongue, lacked salt. The smothered pork shoulder, generously portioned to feed two, was tender but bland, requiring liberal doses of house-made pepper-infused vinegar to give it personality.
The best entree I tried was the fried chicken, seasoned to the bone and lightly breaded. It was well-executed but still lacked the punch I was looking for.
In contrast, the cocktails had panache. The mint julep was classic, with its nose-tickling fistful of mint and a generous heap of crushed ice crowning the pewter cups. It was strong and not too sweet.
A refreshing lemon-and-ginger Presbyterian had a honeylike smoothness and went down easily, dangerously so. On one occasion, I asked the bartender for a recommendation and was skillfully guided to a bourbon with the smoothness and character of an Armagnac, and I was left the bottle for my examination.
Dining at the bar made for some confusion, as both the server and the bartender attended to me and my dining companion, making it hard to know who was who, and whose attention to grab when we needed something. When I thought one of my pieces of chicken was underdone, the bartender brought it to the kitchen, came back and corrected me. He told me the piece was cooked through, but that the kitchen would get me another. He was terse and matter of fact, as good bartenders often are, but it wasn’t exactly the service approach one usually sees in high-end dining, and I felt the exchange was awkward.
Sitting away from the bar made for a smoother experience, as my server was skillful, courteous and knowledgeable, and our food and drinks were well-timed.
Hard Water is a great, not too noisy bar with better-than-average food — a good spot for dates and boozing up clients. The limited seating makes reservations strongly recommended for dining.
Though I get the sense that Hard Water is still figuring out its marriage of top-notch bartending and fine dining, I’ll surely be back to drink a few more whiskeys.
Location: Pier 3, The Embarcadero. S.F.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5 p.m. to midnight Mondays through Saturdays
Contact: (415) 392-3021, www.hardwaterbar.com
Price range: $4 to $24
Recommended dishes: Oysters Saint Charles ($22 for a half-dozen), crispy milk-braised celery hearts ($12), cheesy grits ($6), collard greens ($7), fried chicken ($18)
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Strongly recommended