Before SubZero Microlounge got its makeover, it was a little slip of a bar with a great variety of mixed drinks and food shuttled over from the kitchen at sister restaurant Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse. The mixed drinks are still available (the menu features seven pages of libations) but now it boasts a larger square footage and its own unique dishes.
My first trip was for an after-work snack and drink. Whimsical art covered the orange and brick-colored walls and I recognized local artist J.T. Bryant's Technicolor Alaska landscapes and sad-eyed narwhals.
Another local artist, Kerby McGhee, built the horseshoe-shaped bar and remodeled the space. Banquette seating, bar tables and cozy, coffee table niches are all available. It looks and feels completely modern but still retains a comfortable, inviting vibe.
When I go out to eat at 10:30 at night, I'm usually limited to Chinese food or burgers as my choices. In SubZero, I found myself looking at much more attractive options."
One page lists "Hand-crafted soups made to order." Smoked tomato cumin with crÃ¨me fraiche, pancetta and fresh chives ($9) is tomato soup but better.
Under salads, I came across "composed non-traditional Cobb salad with Cambozola crisps ($9)." Clearly SubZero has someone on the cutting edge of culinary construction. That someone is Tim Farley, who is also the head chef at neighboring Humpy's. His aim was to create a Belgian bistro-style atmosphere, with a selection of Belgian beers and a dish made famous by Belgium: Moules-frites, mussels in beer broth and skinny fries ($16).
The "Pupus" section covers more international ground. Kobe beef sliders with thin Portobello mushroom slices and caramelized shallots in demi-glace ($12) and Tuscan chicken wraps with sweet slaw, roasted peppers and a warm tortilla ($14) are a nice departure from the traditional bar menu.
I ordered the bacon and corn chowder ($9) and lamb chops ($15), along with a Fujitini ($9).
The chowder was smoky and thick enough to support a generous mound of cubed bacon, corn kernels and diced green pepper. Nothing about this dish was bland. The soup was assertively flavored enough to stand on its own, but the crunchy bacon and sweet corn elevated it to superior heights.
My two lamb chops sat on a bed of chartreuse butter beans and were flanked by a roasted cherry tomato and arugula salad. When I had first ordered, the server didn't ask how I would like the lamb chops cooked and I was apprehensive about the temperature. I needn't have worried; the chops were perfectly medium-rare with a flavorful sear and intensified by lemon thyme mustard butter.
I was surprised by the cold silky burst of the tomatoes and enjoyed the contrast with the hot, buttery lamb. Arugula is often under-appreciated and it was put to good use in this dish. I loved the play of textures in my meal.
My drink paled in comparison to the food. The concoction of ginger vodka, amaretto and apple juice was too sweet for my taste and left me longing for a crisp beer, which SubZero has in spades.
I made my next visit at 4:30 p.m., right after opening. The bar was virtually empty. I ordered the cumin-seared yellow fin tuna ($14) and loved the composition. A pale pink hunk of tuna is rolled generously in cumin and seared, then sliced and paired with a relish of corn and avocado and a delicious accompaniment of creamy dill sauce. Again, the combination of tastes and textures was intriguing. I've had tuna with more flavor, but the dish as a whole was a perfect portion of pleasant fieriness and coolness.
Manager Donna Ireland created SubZero's drink menu and works to achieve a sultry, lounge-like effect for the bar. Live jazz bands play Wednesdays and Thursdays and the bar participates in First Friday art shows. Humpy's and SubZero have the same parents but couldn't be more different. If Humpy's is the beer-guzzling, nacho-eating, Man-vs.-Food-watching, pub-loving fisherman, then Sub- Zero is his well-dressed, better-traveled, portion-watching, cosmopolitan, art major sister.
*** 1/2 $$
Hours: 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-2:30 a.m. Friday-Saturday, 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Sunday (food available until 1 a.m. Sunday-Thursday, until 2 a.m. Friday-Saturday)
Options: Dine in and takeout
Address: 612 F Street