Location: 100 Lytton St., Oakland. 412-682-6200
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. daily. Dinner: Mon.-Fri. 5:30-9:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 5-9 p.m.
Prices: Starters: $7-10; sandwiches: $12-15; entrees: $20-29
Fare: Everyday American, prepared with care
Atmosphere: Business casual
Liquor: Full bar
Traditionally, hotel meals come in two flavors: high-falutin' and serviceable. The former we associate with velvet-draped, venerable downtown establishments, while the latter are the province of plain-Jane national chains serving travelers whose budgets hover somewhere below the upper crust.
Holiday Inn, in particular, is not a name associated with haute cuisine. But we thought we would give its newly remodeled and re-menued restaurant at the University Center location a try. When we drove past its broad patio along Lytton Street on a warm early spring evening, the kind that begs you not to go inside, we decided to check it out right then.
On such a beautiful night, we were a bit surprised to have the patio to ourselves, but the interior wasn't exactly packed either. We weren't forgotten out there, but the kitchen was surprisingly slow on what seemed a slow night. Fortunately, the food was, by and large, worth the wait.
To begin with, the menu was easy to digest, offering a moderate number of selections -- six to eight -- across its categories of starters, salads, sandwiches and entrees. We noted with interest that the dishes on offer weren't fancy; if anything, the kitchen seemed to be deliberately repudiating any putting-on-of-airs. But it was obvious that recipes had been developed with care, and this was not mere dining via food-service delivery. The menu claims that the soups are made from in-house stocks, the brisket is corned by the kitchen, and, if the chef doesn't bake the brioche sandwich rolls himself, he made a great selection with them.
There were other little distinctions that made big impressions, such as the curry aioli served with the fried calamari. In fact, had it not been for that aioli catching our eye, we would have given this appetizer a miss. That would have been a shame, because it was delicious: The squid rings were meaty yet exceptionally tender, and several whole baby octopi studding the dish were a tiny, tentacled treat. All were coated in a thick but light, crunchy batter, which the creamy, tangy curry aioli complemented perfectly. (More traditional marinara dipping sauce was served as well.) The curry dipping sauce took Angelique back to a restaurant she used to frequent years ago, where a strikingly similar sauce was memorably served with sweet-potato fries. With this in mind, Angelique reserved the uneaten portion of her aioli for the side of (light, crispy, not-at-all soggy) sweet-potato fries that came later. May we recommend this felicitous pairing to our readers -- and the chef?
Sourdough tomato soup was so named because, presumably, it was thickened and enriched by sourdough bread instead of cream. Like the calamari, this soup was superb, deeply red and tomato-centric with a slightly spicy tang. We liked that it wasn't pureed perfectly smooth; the rustic texture made it seem -- if soup can be such a thing -- juicy. Disappointment crept in only when we tried the "grilled cheese mini-bites" served alongside. Made with bland American cheese, they were completely mismatched with the thick, well-toasted sourdough bread.
Crabcakes, made with a mix of jumbo lump and more pedestrian crab, were light and crisp, with tender interiors, but mild for their proclaimed Maryland origins. Much more suspect were the soggy, frankly awful green beans on the side.
Angelique surprised herself by ordering a Kansas City barbecue pulled-chicken salad as an entree. The chicken that arrived was sliced, not pulled, but moist beneath a sticky, tangy-sweet barbecue sauce whose flavor was echoed in the bourbon-ranch dressing. The corn and cheddar in the menu description were only scantly scattered on the salad, another disappointment.
Jason ordered a burger whose patty was a bit on the firm side, but nicely charred on the exterior. Here was that brioche roll doing a wonderful job of providing both structural support (modern oversized burgers tend to overwhelm their wimpy rolls) along with a hint of buttery richness that flattered the business within, including hearty, flavorful bacon and caramelized onions just this side of fully tender.
A dining companion's Reuben featured the aforementioned house-corned beef, which was probably sliced too thick -- it was a bit chewy -- and seemed bland to its consumer. Jason, however, thought it had a nice beefiness, with the corning spices as a top note, rather than carrying the flavor. On the side were onion rings so puffy they looked like donuts. The exterior was crisp, the interior light, the onions cooked just enough that they stood up against their coating, but these fellows still could have constituted a course unto themselves.
Bridges is a hotel restaurant that takes a refined approach to everyday food, with occasional great success.