Sitting at the bar or at one of the tables along the wall-length banquette at HobNob Kitchen & Bar at 8 p.m. during season, it would be easy to convince yourself that your location was somewhere much more cosmopolitan than Fifth Avenue South in Naples. There’s the healthy din of the crowd—loud enough to remind you that you aren’t alone, soft enough so you don’t need to shout to hold a conversation. And the stylish interior, a far cry from the more rustic or island themes offered by most of its compatriots, could have easily been from a hip new spot in Austin or Nashville or any of the other Southern cities you see featured in glossy national food magazines.
As much as anything else, this atmosphere has made Michael Hernandez’s new venture the most talked-about restaurant opening this season. But like his last spot, the soon-to-close Handsome Harry’s on Third Street South, the buzz about HobNob so far had been great vibe, middling food and inattentive service.
On a recent Thursday night, I can attest that only one of those things proved accurate. The vibe is cool. The décor—the too-on-the-nose illuminated EAT and DRINK signs notwithstanding—is every bit as inviting and functional as it appears from the street.
But my dining companion and I were equally impressed with a nearly flawless meal and impeccable service, both of which served to put to rest concerns we’d heard about, or experienced there, in the past.
The relatively tight menu blends French, Italian, Mediterranean and American influences into a coherent, modern-in-a-rearward-facing-way cuisine. By that I mean cues are taken both in the kitchen and at the bar from occasionally outdated reference points. A delightfully bitter Negroni ($12)—popping up in several spots around town as Naples comes to terms with the turn-of-the-20th-century drink fad—serves as one of the bar’s signature cocktails. A time-honored favorite, deviled eggs ($7), topped with bacon and a delightfully sweet tomato jam, reminded me of breakfasts as a kid where the syrup from the pancakes would slide across the plate to add a sticky-sweet jolt to the savory components. Arancini ($8), or rice balls, were stuffed not with typical ground meats and peas but with jalapeño and cheddar and served with a spicy ranch dipping sauce—a new, delicately light version of the American bar classic jalapeño poppers.
There are a few more modern influences that pop up here and there; the refreshing L-Tini ($12) was jazzed up with St. Germain. A Caesar salad ($9) is served deconstructed. But for the most part the menu carries with it a theme of refreshing classics by playing with the ingredients.
(For those so inclined, the wine list is a bit Spartan, but offers enough of a selection to service all but the most high-end tastes.)
The sole misstep experienced in the appetizer section came with the octopus and white beans dish ($12), which, despite a wonderful flavor of garlic, lemon and olive oil, came out a little chewy because the kitchen didn’t cut the octopus quite right. Still, this minor inconvenience aside, we scarfed it all down with pleasure.
Entree selections do their best to cover just about every protein you might want, be it land or sea, with two pasta choices tacked on at the end to satisfy everyone. For the most part, the price points keep within a reasonable $20 to $35 range, save for a bone-in ribeye steak with béarnaise onions ($52) and lamb chops ($44). We sampled the two-way duck ($34) and the crispy grouper and chips ($28), and found both to be better than the average interpretations.
For the grouper, the secret lies within the batter. While giving off a satisfying crunch with every bite (staying so through long dinner conversation, no less), the grouper’s crust was almost tempura light. Decent hand-cut fries and an extra-zingy tartar sauce rounded out one of the better fish and chips dishes you are going to have in a town full of them.
A side order of Brussels sprouts sauteed with bacon ($8) was tasty, but, again, a little extra knife work would have made it even better. The hardy sprouts probably needed quartering way through.
The duck dish offered up two delightful takes on the same bird. A wonderfully cooked duck breast—still with the nicely maroon medium-rare center—was tender with a deep flavor that paired well with a peach sauce, while the duck leg confit had amazingly crisp skin, concealing rich dark meat. Both were offset nicely by a cornbread stuffing muffin, which had a bacon-bit center.
For dessert, we went decidedly Southern with a decadent banoffee pudding—a layering of banana pudding, dulce de leche and toffee in a Mason jar—which did justice to its more classic British counterpart, the Banoffee pie.
A bread pudding, served with vanilla ice cream and a dazzlingly bright raspberry sauce, had fine flavor, but was a bit rubbery, perhaps from sitting out a bit too long. What should have given in easily to my spoon slid around the plate in protest.
At the end of the night, with the check arriving promptly as the dessert plates and coffee were cleared, the experience of HobNob definitely met the desired intent. Transported by the space and the food, we weren’t just dining on Fifth Avenue South, but in an immersive experience unique to the street.
Or as my friend noted gladly as we were leaving, “Thankfully they did something good with the place and not another Italian restaurant.”
HobNob Kitchen & Bar
720 Fifth Ave. S., Naples; (239) 580-4784, hobnobnaples.com
Open for dinner 5-10 p.m.; bar hours 3:30-11 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, 3:30 p.m. to midnight Thursday through Saturday.
Wheelchair accessible. Reservations highly recommended.