If you visit the new Chapel Hill restaurant Imbibe and don't order the chickpea sticks, re-evaluate your life and your choices. Trust me: you need these chickpea sticks.
They arrive looking like a Jenga game already in progress. About the size of really thick steak fries, they're much lighter, with a barely there shell wrapping the interior's delectable fluffiness. A mix of chickpea flour and salty ricotta, they're like samosas reshaped into divine rectangular cubes. Ramekins of warm marinara and chilly Greek yogurt ride shotgun on the plate, ready for dipping. After sampling both, I declared the yogurt the winner.
No, actually, that was me—I'd ordered the chickpea sticks.
Imbibe co-owner Mandey Brown describes the fare of her new restaurant, which sits below her East Franklin Street hideaway and pub Zog's, as "elevated bar food." She's right: the dishes are uniformly interesting but comforting, full of personality but not too off-putting to suffer from being on the student side of town. For a strip now overrun by the lowest-common-denominator chains, Imbibe offers a necessary new respite.
The Soy Division pizza, for instance, puts a rich peanut curry sauce beneath bell pepper, scallions, and ginger-soy tofu. The sauce delivers enough heat to tantalize, but only enough to overpower the most timid of palates. That pie satisfied this carnivore, but if you're skeptical, the Thai Me a River (they've got no shortage of puns at Imbibe) mostly subs chicken breast for tofu. And for the future, I've already got my eye on the Goodie MOBB and its house-made marinara, port-caramelized onions, bacon, and blue cheese—well, unless I opt for Pangea Tacos, stuffed with cucumber, cilantro, lemon, Greek yogurt, and either curried chicken or paneer.
I tried—and probably failed—to maintain some sense of decorum while continually wolfing down orders of chickpea sticks. A nearby diner who hailed, like Brown, from New Orleans didn't seem to mind; instead, he waxed glowingly about the authenticity of the Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo and expressed amazement that chef and co-owner Jedd Tyler hails from Oregon, not some swampy bayou.
It's another highlight of the small, selective menu. Otherwise, there are two types of salads, three variations on fries ("curly," "dirty," and "filthy," meaning plain, topped with meat and cheese, or served up with that gumbo), two more pizzas, and Swedish meatballs that fall in the "specialty" category. For dessert, you can choose between tiramisu and the Spumoni Chalice—"a normal amount of cherry, pistachio, and chocolate ice cream topped with pistachios and cherries, served in a ridiculously oversized goblet." Its visions of Bishop Don Juan wandering the streets of Chicago while wielding a giant sundae had me giggling ... well, maybe that was just the sugar.
A bar runs along one side of the narrow, rectangular space, with a dozen tables scattered amid the sleek, dark wood décor. Behind the bar, sixteen taps dispense wine (one red, one white), cider (three selections), and a nice array of beers—The Guilty Party ESB from Gibb's Hundred Brewing, for example, and Saranac's S'more Porter.
Despite Zog's upstairs, Imbibe, as the name suggests, takes this part of the business as seriously as the food. Evan Crouch, resident Cicerone and retail manager, is training Imbibe's staff in the Cicerone program, designed to create more knowledgeable beer providers. Along with what's on tap, there's a small retail corner consisting of a couple of sets of tall shelves and a refrigerated case. You can drink any of the beers or wines from there on the spot.
If you're wondering about the rationale behind opening one bar below another established haunt you already own, know that Imbibe and Zog's complement each other like yin and yang. Already, people are showing up at Imbibe to have dinner and a beer before migrating upstairs to cap off the night at Zog's. One night, I recognized more than one face that I had seen a short time earlier downstairs.
I see the appeal. Where Imbibe is streamlined, Zog's is a cluttered mélange of pool tables, dartboards, pop culture signifiers, and New Orleans flair. ("Welcome to the inside of my mind," Brown says, laughing.) Imbibe has beer on tap but no liquor, while Zog's has an excellent liquor selection, including a surprising set of Scotches, but no beer on tap. Imbibe opens at 11 a.m. and strives to be "study-friendly," at least until the sun goes down. At night, expect jazz, either on the sound system or, on Mondays, live. Zog's, on the other hand, doesn't open until 5 p.m. Don't go expecting to study.
Zog's patrons can order from Imbibe, too, and have it brought upstairs, an excellent remedy for billiards-induced hunger.
Just remember: whether you're upstairs or downstairs, you need those chickpea sticks.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Over and Under"