Humboldt is a solid neighborhood restaurant -- with no Strings attached
The tuna crudo starter at Humboldt is a real catch.
In Hollywood, moviemakers drop half as much dough to build interest in films as they do to make them, leading to marketing budgets with lots of zeroes. Can you imagine if local restaurateurs did the same, putting branded toys in Happy Meals, wrapping ads around buses and running action-packed commercials with chefs wielding knives for the sake of filling a dining room? Sounds absurd, but with the frenzy of new restaurants opening around town, who knows what antics might eventually arise?
Humboldt didn't need to resort to such tactics to get attention. The Uptown eatery had plenty of built-in buzz when it opened in October, despite not having a big-name chef in the kitchen (though DJ Nagle, opening chef of North, is certainly no slouch). No, this buzz was all about curiosity. After all, this was the spot that was taking over Strings, the beloved eatery that closed last spring after nearly 27 years and the death of founder Noel Cunningham. Would it be a place with no ties to the former tenant, a pizza-and-pool hall, say, or a craft-beer hangout, or would it somehow fold history — and Strings's loyal following — into its future self?
See also: A Closer Look at Humboldt
Concept Restaurants, which added Humboldt to a portfolio that includes Rialto Cafe and Ignite, opted for the latter. "This was a legendary space that had a legendary restaurant," explains Sean Huggard, operations director for Concept. "We did need to put effort into it to do right by this restaurant." That meant consulting Cunningham's widow, Tammy, through construction. It also meant retaining elements of the original space, such as the brick-walled atrium and location of the bar, while removing walls and the mezzanine and adding quirky art (wine-drinking fish), community tables and scores of hanging glass globes to make the place feel more contemporary. Just as important, it meant coming up with a concept that, like Strings, would appeal to the neighborhood and make everyone feel welcome.
That concept, recorded in the tagline in the restaurant's name, turned out to be "Farm. Fish. Wine." And like most marketing efforts, it has one foot in reality and a toe or two outside of it.
First, reality. The restaurant does have an extensive wine list, with 110 bottles and more than 50 by the glass. Unlike other spots in town that favor wines at the expense of spirits, bartenders pour cocktails, too, though the emphasis is definitely more on fermented grapes than distilled beverages. The fact that the list pairs so well with seafood is certainly no accident; as the tagline also suggests, Humboldt has an undeniable sea-going urge. "I'm a seafood junkie, and so is our GM [Brion Boyer] and DJ," says Huggard, noting that all three are from the East Coast. That's why about half the menu is seafood, with a daily fish sandwich, numerous sea-related large and small plates, and an additional three or four fish specials with mix-and-match sauces.
Given the group hug for all things from the sea, it's not surprising that at every one of my meals at Humboldt, it was the seafood that stood out. Slices of sushi-grade albacore were topped with orange segments, avocado and red fresno chiles in a light, fresh starter that could easily have been paired with soup, salad or another appetizer for a meal. Oysters could also round it out; I learned that the hard way, when I was hardly hungry for my main course after sharing the tuna and a mix of oysters with a friend. Oysters have become a signature item at Humboldt, which sells a few thousand a week from the oyster bar in the open kitchen. Servers are reliable guides when it comes to navigating the varieties, asking about preferences and steering diners toward sweeter Kumamotos or brinier petite Washburns, which are cultivated for Humboldt by an oyster farm on Cape Cod. Not so reliable are the runners who deliver them to the table, since they aren't always sure of what's on the half-shell before them.
And when the crispy whole fish, plated with its head up and tail fin curved to the side to look like it was swimming, came our way, it turned heads across the restaurant. Kudos to the kitchen for offering a whole fish; many chefs are hesitant to offer them, for fear the bones might turn people off. Served deep-fried, with cold sesame spinach, pickled daikon and carrots, and housemade lemongrass barbecue sauce, the bass, with its crackling skin and flaky flesh, was worth the effort of picking out some bones.
Despite the emphasis on seafood, you don't feel like you're in a fish house at Humboldt, because there's much more to the menu than the token steak, baked potato and salad landlubbers find in those sorts of places. Rather than one steak, there are three — including steak Diane, one of the first dishes the kitchen knew it wanted to serve (even if it is not flambéed tableside, as restaurants used to do) — as well as tender steak skewers with harissa and chimichurri; pork tenderloin with celery-root purée, arugula and sweet cider (not plum, as the server said) reduction; and even a burger good enough to tempt seafood lovers, with bacon mixed into grass-fed beef, topped with onion jam and cheddar on a sweet brioche. (Steaks, sourced from Vintage Natural Beef, are not grass-fed.) This is where the "farm" part of the tagline comes in; to Huggard, that description is "all-encompassing — meat, cheese, dairy, vegetables."
But "farm" is also where marketing goes slightly astray. When a restaurant places "farm" front and center, as Humboldt has, and when a website trumpets "mostly local ingredients," you'd expect a greater farm-to-table focus, with the pronounced seasonality and direct-from-farmer sourcing those words imply. For now, explains Nagle, "we're not at the relationship level yet where [farmers] have this and that for us. In a perfect world, we'll get there." The most notable vegetable, billed as the "house favorite," is out-of-season deep-fried broccoli, which sounds like a ploy from the veggie-averse to make broccoli taste like French fries. (Close your eyes and take a bite; you'll see what I mean.) This is the same approach that's been so successful with Brussels sprouts: Hey, let's deep-fry them and they won't taste like Brussels sprouts at all! And that's just how I found them on the menu one night, fried and doused in a mild soy-sriracha sauce. Another night, I found lovely heirloom carrots in hues of red, orange and yellow, but presented simply, with onions and kale. If farm is a focus, why not push the envelope a bit?
But you don't go to Humboldt for creativity. This is a kitchen that seems eager to please the maximum number of people possible, without the intense, exhilarating and sometimes odd flavors other teams might concoct. For example, spice blends run mild — a so-called spicy truffled chile glaze tasted mostly like soy; harissa lacked chiles; pepperoncini aioli deferred to the grana Padano atop it — and oyster specials come with standard cocktail sauce and mignonette, not the more clever ices seen at many oyster bars. Still, people do seem to be pleased, with two-hour waits for a table in the middle of the week.
Which brings me back to marketing. We've all learned to take movie trailers with a grain of salt. Maybe we should do the same with Humboldt, ignoring the tagline and letting the space and kitchen speak for themselves. Because when they do, they make a persuasive case for why Humboldt is a welcome addition to the neighborhood, especially for a night out with seafood-loving friends.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.