The bar snack has been around ever since those clever Neolithic farmers fermented their grain into beer and guzzled it with the Stone Age version of nachos and corn nuts. Over the succeeding centuries every culture on the planet has contributed its own bar-snack variant to that great global happy hour that unites us all: tapas, mezes, antipasti, antojitos, zensai, zakuski, and those little cocktail wieners you fish out of a crock pot at your neighborhood saloon on a Tuesday night. Now, in the burgeoning trend of lifting fried chicken, mac 'n' cheese and other once-humble comestibles to lofty culinary heights, these tasty tidbits of booze-centric protein are taking on a newfound respectability. At bars, lounges, and gastropubs (the preferred term) from London to the Bay Area, top-shelf pub grub is becoming as important to the whole saloon experience as flat-screen TVs and cobalt-colored cocktails. Here, one doesn't settle for pretzels and peanuts. Pickled crudités, white bean crostini, Niman Ranch bangers, and duck eggs deviled with caviar are the noshes of choice, and don't forget to order extra lemongrass for your purple potato French fries.
For just over a year now, the Water Lounge has been riding the über-hors d'oeuvre wave. Located on the premises of the dearly departed Pearl Oyster Bar, it's an unexpectedly trendy sort of hangout to find in bourgeois Rockridge. The highly polished wood and granite space is bathed in a dim bluish glow, with lounge-y sofas up front, high tables toward the back, and a long bar equipped with spring-powered stools that adjust to the weight of your fundament. Bottles of high-end booze are dramatically backlit in an ever-shifting aurora-borealis spectrum of color. The plum-, steel- and eggshell-blue walls are adorned with original artwork and occasional projected footage from one cult foreign cinematic classic or another. A DJ spins up a lounge-friendly funk-soul soundscape, the mane-tossing wannabe-hipster clientele pepper their conversation with lots of "chill"s and "hella"s, and if you're visiting from the Mission or the Marina, you'll feel right at home.
Since this is a bar with food as opposed to a restaurant with a liquor license, let's begin with the booze. There's wine by the glass and seven draft beers as well as an interesting array of bottled brews ranging from Anchor Steam Porter to Barbaroja Red Ale from Argentina, but the real focus of the place is its cocktail menu. Our favorite among the inventive house libations was the Asunta, a tangy golden concoction of Lillet, bitters, lemon juice, and Four Roses bourbon served on the stem. The Oriental (rye, bitters, lemon juice, and sweet and dry vermouth) was like a spicier, more complex Cosmopolitan, but the Burgundy Sunset, a beautiful gold-and-scarlet tumbler of tequila, crème de cassis, yellow chartreuse, and orange juice, was surprisingly unexciting. The Napoli, on the other hand, was a bit too exciting, a smoky, strident, intensely herbal showcase for Luxardo fernet bitters. Among the classics, we liked the drily masculine Hemingway daiquiri and the refreshingly bittersweet Dark and Stormy, while the caipirinha was a tart and watery disappointment. But the Elixir of Life (a shot of lime juice and bitters) made a bracing evening's-end pick-me-up.
You might want to enjoy a few noshes before then, though. As noted, these aren't your traditional corner saloon snack items; they're thoughtfully presented dishes prepared with exceptionally fresh ingredients, and although the quality can be erratic, the food's still several rungs loftier than most of the bar grub you're likely to encounter. Take the ahi poke, a creamy, spicy hillock of cubed raw tuna served in a martini glass with cucumber, scallions, sesame seeds, and wasabi, a luscious, refreshing meal-opener. Or the watercress salad, a fresh and festive platter of fennel, walnuts, and currants accented with bits of earthy roasted beet. The chilled asparagus, eight tiny stalks drizzled with lemon juice, were pretty scrawny for $6, likewise the (undeniably fresh and delectable) hamachi sashimi, five slender filets at $2.50 per. But the advertised "two little hamburgers" weren't the sliders we expected but a couple of pretty damned hearty (and lean and smoky) burgers served on rosemary foccacia with gooey mozzarella, sautéed mushrooms, and a generous helping of wonderfully skinny, crunchy French fries. (You can skip the bland, chewy Japanese sweet potato chips, though.)
Also skippable is the seafood gumbo, a tepid bowl of chewy whitefish, a prawn or two, and not nearly enough okra, peppers, and swamp oomph to give it the intense earthiness of the great Louisiana soul bowl. The bay scallop ceviche, a martini glass of fresh, juicy marinated crudo with a slightly bitter aftertaste, is only somewhat better. Opt instead for the tempura, a generous helping of exceptionally fresh asparagus spears, pepper strips, mushrooms caps, and prawns served piping hot in a light, crunchy coating; tacos de mariscos, two soft tortillas piled high with chunks of tomato, avocado, and crisply fried fish; or the star of the menu, an entire game hen brined and deep fried until crunchy on the outside, juicy on the inside and tasty all over.
The menu offers a creditable number of meat-free items for vegetarians in search of cocktail-time sustenance. Besides the beet and watercress salad, the chilled asparagus, the sweet potato chips, and the salt-and-pepper fries, there are two little burgers made of tofu instead of cow flesh and a nice selection of tofu and vegetable tempura. Plus good old tortilla chips with pico de gallo.
There are no desserts on the Water Lounge's menu (aside from a bottle of champagne or a snifter of cognac, single barrel or single malt), but the surrounding neighborhood offers several after-dinner options. Just down the street is Crepevine, home of many a sweet French pancake. In the Rockridge Market Hall complex across the street is Peaberry's Coffee & Tea and its array of chocolates, and the Market Hall Bakery, a fine pie-cookie-cupcake resource. And up at the corner of College and Shafter is the always dependable Oliveto, where you can relax in the downstairs cafe over a cup of coffee and a seasonal dessert like panna cotta with caramelized Jonathan apples, merlot, and zinfandel sorbetti or honey-poached pears with moscato zabaglione. Any would make a fine conclusion to an evening of cocktails and pub grub, 21st-century style.