Photo by Chris Kessler
Restaurant operators are stalked as much as Hollywood celebs, thanks to people such as, uh, me. We pry for menu details and projected opening dates. Rare is the restaurant that opens “on schedule.” Rare is the restaurant that doesn’t stir up some preopening momentum on social media. But the genesis of AP Bar and Kitchen – the new project from Crazy Water owner Peggy Magister – escaped the lion’s share of scrutiny.
Once Magister and business partner/nephew Justin Anthony were handed the lease (at 814 S. Second St., across the street from Crazy Water), they hit the accelerator on the project. Their upgrades were cosmetic – clear-glass light fixtures, floors refinished to a blond hue, new stainless steel bartops, reclaimed-wood tabletops, and assorted dish and decorative items that erase the old tap bar feel of the place. While Anthony focused on the bar program (wines and cocktails), Magister lined up a chef – Chicago expat Daniel Pope. Magister wanted a menu of small plates. Also, fresh oysters, cheeses and charcuterie, also a few large plates, such as a whole roasted market-price fish.
They opened without so much as a sign for the building, figuring word-of-mouth and overflow from Crazy Water would be a start. Unlike its sister restaurant – whose 2002 opening preceded the Walker’s Point dining renaissance by many years – AP (short for “All Purpose”) faces competition from neighboring restaurants of all species – La Merenda to Braise, Blue Jacket to The Noble. Optimists say competition is healthy and good for everyone. One place that AP likely won’t compete with is its own sibling, to which it bears almost no similarity.
While Crazy Water’s more formal mood is set by the presence of dark wood left by a Germanic predecessor, AP is intentionally light – glowy, Cream City brick-warm. Whether at a table, banquette or the bar, servers encourage diners to order with the mindset of sharing. Food arrives not in courses but when it’s ready.
There was trial-and-error to AP’s opening menu, and several dishes – fried sweetbreads, for instance – underwent tweaking over time. The brightest execution came in the warm, oozy burrata (a fresh Italian cheese made of mozzarella and cream, $12) sprinkled with thyme and served with briny, dark olives and toasted bread; chewy Gorgonzola-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon ($9); and seared scallops paired with sharp radicchio, fingerlings and white peach gremolata ($14). Also nice: delicate late-summer squash blossoms stuffed with herbed chevre and served with intriguing contrasts of sweet beet puree, pungent anchovy and crispy almonds ($7); and beef cheek goulash ($11), a heady paprika-laced stew. There’s also the ceremonious process of eating fresh oysters – nudging the opaque little bugger out of its shell with a tiny fork, spritzing with fresh lemon and Tabasco, then finishing off with mignonette sauce and other accoutrements (market price, three or four varieties available).
I also dig the whole roasted fish (branzino, lane snapper and others), which arrives – head and tail attached – coated in fresh herbs. Nothing better than sipping a crisp, chilly white wine and removing flaky shards of fish from the bone to pop in your mouth.
For Magister, a second restaurant had long been floating in the realm of possibility. It’s a great space. One that simply needs to hit its stride.