Earth tones and frat bros

G.V. Hurley’s Restaurant & Bar

2718 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95816

(916) 706-2410

It’s hard to imagine a worse name for a restaurant than G.V. Hurley’s. Honestly, Hurley’s? Not only does it sound like a frat bar, but more problematically, it bears a reminder of what they did after. Why not call it Chunder?

Nomenclature aside, Hurley’s is trying hard to be a nice place—but it also attracts that fratty, drinking crowd, five years out of college or so. On the night we were there, it was packed with a scene’s worth of cocktail gulpers, contributing to a din amid the high-priced setting. With earth tones, rough-hewn wood ceilings, stone, high-back banquettes, woven vinyl tablecloths and sleek but oversized tableware, it looks like it could be swapped in for practically any new restaurant in the region. The menu, however, sets it apart—particularly the Southern undercurrent running throughout—from shrimp and grits to crab cakes with summer succotash. There are also plenty of other influences, as indicated by the brisket spring rolls and Chinese salad, the straightforwardly American chopped salad or eclectic dishes like fried calamari with graham-cracker crumb breading.

We started off with a couple cocktails from the short specialty cocktail list: a strong, herbaceous, edgily bitter yet refreshing Cool as a Cucumber (with Hendrick’s Gin, tonic and muddled cucumber) and its polar opposite, the Patio Razz, a sweet concoction of tropical fruit juices and flavored rum, as cloying as the other was cleansing. The short list of wines by the glass and the overall list run to chardonnays and big reds.

From early on in the meal, our server had a harried air. The only real misstep in the service was that she was slow to bring our drinks; the meal was paced leisurely, but that was fine, especially given the big portions. We wouldn’t have noticed it as especially slow had she not called attention to it by apologizing repeatedly; more confidence would have gone a long way.

The first food to arrive was half a loaf of oily herbed bread, springy and moist inside, with cloves of roasted garlic baked in, plus a kind of vinegar-oil-herb thing for dipping. The heft of the bread plate and its pungent flavors made it function like an extra appetizer; it in fact dissuaded us from ordering the bruschetta with fava and white beans. My endive salad was similarly huge, but a lot lighter. The odd-sounding mix of avocado, strawberries, endive, poppy-seed dressing and toasted pecans was successful and not too sweet—the dressing was light and tangy, and the strawberries offset the edge of the endives, just as the avocados’ richness balanced the crunch of the leaves.

A smaller plate was the most Southern-style thing we tried and also my favorite: shrimp and grits, with smoky, strong tasso ham chunks in with the grits and a drizzling of bold chili oil off to one side. The succulent, curled, pink shrimp nestled in the middle of a shallow bowl of creamy grits—a more restrained interpretation than the big breakfast plate of the combo I had a few years back in North Carolina, but even more delicious.

After these successful openers, the entrees were a letdown, especially my husband’s fried chicken: dry of flesh; slightly sour from the buttermilk battering, with some kind of elusive and sweetish spicing that was distracting rather than balanced; and pale, without any kind of crunch or resiliency to the crust of the chicken, thanks to what seemed like very little breading. How they managed to overcook the chicken meat while seemingly undercooking the exterior, I am not sure. The very rich mashed potatoes and a gravy with more of the tasso ham in it were fine, as were the crisp-tender steamed vegetables.

My Kobe tri-tip, cooked to a smoky char on the outside but red inside, was more successful, slightly chewy but with a rich, beef-fatty flavor imbuing the juicy meat. I got as accompaniments more of those mashed potatoes, a complex and rich spiced barbecue butter and an odd, room-temperature green tomato, very firm and tart, topped with blue cheese and some mushroom bits. The overall dish was tasty enough, but the tomato could have been dropped.

There’s a short dessert list (rendered verbally by the server, and can I say that I am sick of not getting a dessert menu? Would-be serious restaurateurs hire pastry chefs and provide enough dessert choices to give customers a menu): chocolate pie, a s’more with cinnamon waffles and strawberry shortcake “made with pound cake,” she said. (Why would a Southern-style restaurant use pound cake instead of biscuitlike shortcakes? That isn’t right.) We ordered the s’more: toasted (but cold) marshmallows layered with not-very-good, warm chocolate sauce; waffles (obviously made way ahead and limp; why not take the graham crackers off the poor calamari and put them in their rightful place in the s’mores?); rectangles of Hershey’s dark chocolate; and a big smear of marshmallow crème.

That kind of gooey sugar bomb sucks you in, but its charms are meretricious. That was kind of the way I felt about G.V. Hurley’s as a whole. It didn’t live down to its name, but despite some successful dishes (the yummy shrimp and grits, especially), it didn’t live up to its hype.