Across Swan Street from Larkin Square, Hydraulic Hearth is a hangout bar that replaces Swan Lounge, a hangout bar that closed a few years ago.
But the surroundings have been tidied up quite a bit, and the bar snacks are light-years ahead of what 716 Swan St. used to offer when last in operation.
Harry Zemsky installed a brick oven for pizza, struck a deal with Community Beer Works to be Hydraulic Hearth's brewing home team, and opened in November. The place is mobbed during events at Larkin Square, but we stopped by on a relatively quiet night last week for a bite and a drink.
It's a tidy room of exposed brick and artful decor. It has the sort of hubbub-magnifying bare surfaces that could leave you texting friends across the table when it fills up, but isn't that what cell phones are for?
The place makes it easy to explore local craft beer with its six-for-$12 flight option, served in a handsome wooden caddy. Helpfully numbered, comparing the glasses to the Community Beer Works brews enumerated on the menu increased my beer knowledge. Cream ale is a thing, not just a Rochester affectation, as it turns out. Community Beer Works' version is a smooth customer indeed.
The meatballs ($7), Swedish-style orbs served with ligonberry sauce, are straight-up Scandinavian comfort food, paired with puckery, bright fruit compote. Five tender, bite-sized spheres, much better than the chewy nuggets I've had in other settings, left us wanting more.
Zemsky got the recipe from Albright-Knox director Janne Siren, or more accurately his wife Sonja. "They're both from Finland, and according to them the only difference between a Swedish meatball and a Finnish meatball is that the Swedish were better marketers," Zemsky said. "So the rest of the world knows it as a Swedish meatball, but that is technically a Finnish meatball recipe."
The dish ended up listed as "Swedish" to avoid confusing customers, he said.
The bourbon wings ($8), while competently executed, broke no new ground in the sticky-wings-rolled-on-a-grill department. That smoked blue cheese dressing, though, made me want to do shots. (Of the dressing. Was that not clear?)
The bitter Caesar ($8) requires audience participation. You're given dressed leaves and a serrated machete, and left to go at it. The results were exactly as described in the dish's name, as the fresh radicchio runs rampant, its astringent edge barely blunted by rich dressing.
We ordered a sausage ($15) and an asparagus special ($16) pizzas. The pizzas are big enough for one person who's not sharing, or two people to split with other dishes. The flavor and freshness of the toppings was outstanding. From a hunger satisfaction standpoint, as tavern food, it was a hit.
From a pizza criticism standpoint, I had issues with the crust. It was quite chewy around the outside, and floppy with moisture in the middle. I thought it ate more like a flatbread than a pizza. Looking around at how fast it vanished off plates at neighboring tables, I also thought I might have been the only customer in the room who cared.
Dessert was Blue Table chocolates ($5 for 4), which were beautiful and interesting, but should not have been served on a plate so warm they partly melted before arrival. The peanut butter gelato ($5), from Tuesdays at Larkin vendor Gelato Gypsy, was splendidly rich and nutty.
As far as tavern food goes, things are looking up in Larkinville.
UPDATED: To clarify the meatball recipe's provenance.
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