Six: Hampton Hits a Home Run (Grade: A)

If I owned a restaurant, I would want it to be exactly like Six, with its warm, inviting atmosphere; friendly, unpretentious waitstaff; focused cooks and bartenders; and consistently off-the-charts food.  I have eaten at Six for dinner more than any other restaurant in Hampton Roads, and it’s where I take all out-of-town guests (well, those still willing to visit the state that has recently dedicated April to the magnificence of slavery and treason, anyway).

But for all the superlatives I could heap on Six, the most appropriate adjective to describe the restaurant would be “unlikely.”  See, Six is located at 6 East Mellen – spitting distance from the intersection of Mellen and Mallory – in the town (neighborhood?  square quarter mile?  street corner?) of Phoebus.  I think Phoebus is part of Hampton, but I can’t really tell, and you probably don’t care.  According to Phoebus’ official website, which is woefully short on useful information, the Jamestown settlers stopped in Phoebus before continuing on to Jamestown.  Why they stopped isn’t entirely clear, nor do we learn why they kept going.  And this is probably a perfect metaphor for Phoebus itself.  Why here?  Why now?  Why ever?

Phoebus is one of those areas that you walk into and you feel all at once sad, optimistic and irrationally determined.  I mean, it’s the quintessential pre-zoning, pre-suburb American town.  You either park on the street or walk around the corner from your house and stroll the storefronts.  It’s all there (in spirit, anyway):  restaurants, bars, antique shops, clothing stores, an art studio, a theater, the VFW, the Post Office, a gas station (with a mechanic!), the mysterious store with the old arcade video games … well, you get the picture.  Judging by the signs, an ice cream parlor is on tap for this summer, while the very cool coffee shop was shuttered early this year.  Everything about Phoebus oozes the undeniable appeal – and understated desperation – of an era that’s being slowly ground to dust by the wheels of progress.  It’s everything the strip malls and the faux Peninsula Center “town” will never be:  real.

But progress being what it is, Phoebus’ bike store can’t compete with Dick’s sporting goods (despite the radical drop in quality and expertise); the coffee shop loses to Starbucks (despite the farther drive, the longer wait and the higher prices); and the quirky Irish bar gets sucked dry by the charmless and schizophrenic trainwreck “The Pub.”  Which is why when I walked into Six for the very first time, I thought, “this place has three months.  Tops.”

I was shocked to learn the restaurant – sandwiched between an empty lot and a long-defunct bombed-out diner – had been going for a good three years.  And that’s why I say I find Six entirely “unlikely.”  If you’re coming from the east, you pull onto Mellen Street after passing the police station (and usually a number of fresh parolees) and a comic book shop.  Typically, you can park right in front of the restaurant – at the absolute most, you might have a 50-yard walk.  The exterior of the restaurant is about as nondescript as it gets, so it’s easy to miss, but once you walk through the door it’s like you’ve entered another world.

The restaurant layout takes its cues from its historical setting:  it’s a long, narrow shotgun affair.  The bar and kitchen occupy the right half, and the left is comprised of the six-table dining room and the one-sofa waiting area.  The music, of late, has been the more esoteric satellite 80s stuff, which garners very high praises in my book (loads of New Order and Elvis Costello and even one Sisters of Mercy tune).  The lighting is always moodily dim and the waitstaff is unfailingly cheery and upbeat.

I should probably point out that Six is no freshman startup – it’s one of four “Little Bar Bistro” operations in the Hampton Roads environs, along with Crackers, Empire and Pacific (all of which are on the other side of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel).  You can read about them all at www.littlebarbistro.com.

(For the love of Coco Puffs, this loser IS going to talk about the food at some point, RIGHT?)

Yeah, so anyway, the food at Six simply rocks.  Any place that has a “butter of the day” is a “you had me at ‘hello’” experience, as far as I’m concerned.  But wait, there’s more.  They do a hummus of the day, too (for you McDonnell supporters, hummus is ground up chick … oh, why am I wasting my time — it’s a dip for bread).  One recent butter has been a blue cheese infusion, and one hummus was a spectacular roasted-garlic-and-cilantro concoction.  The flavors are always great, but I would say Six’s hummus tends to the grainier side.  Visiting Lebanon kind of destroyed my perspective on the dish, because there the hummus there shows up super creamy and swimming in a pool of olive oil.  Six’s may be a little dry in comparison, but it’s always bursting with flavor and perfectly matched with the warm pita bread it’s served with.  Grainy or no, I almost always order it as a starter.

Six is a tapas joint, so you get to try out several dishes with every visit, and this is one restaurant where I, no kidding, would like to start at the far left of the menu and try every single dish until I get to the end.  The menu also changes with the seasons, so you never really make it the whole way through the menu before it’s completely reinvented.  About a week ago, I had a flaky pastry topped with asparagus and wild mushrooms in a decadent garlic cream sauce.  Massive win.  The week before that, they had the same pastry with smoked salmon on top.  Even better.

The current menu is featuring such jaw-droppers as the tuna sashimi with caramelized onion soy which easily one-ups all the Japanese restaurants in town.  The smoky/creamy smoked flounder dip lasted mere minutes on the table.  And the artichoke and potato hash with the spicy aioli?  You mean fries with artichoke heart slivers?  Absolutely, positively ingenious and spectacular and … gone.  The fall menu had such mouth-watering options as lobster ravioli in a sundried tomato cream sauce and crab cakes with a red curry remoulade (a veritable culinary miracle, if you ask me).  They had carpaccio on arugula, a roasted fennel salad with raspberry dressing, and even a smoked lemon-pepper seared tuna on a parsnip slaw.  Sounds great, right?  It tasted far, far better.  Fried risotto balls with cranberries?  Winwinwin.

And these are just the paper menu offerings.  Every night also brings a litany of specials on the blackboard in the rear of the restaurant.  Ignore these at your own peril, as this is where you’ll usually see some of the most exciting dishes.  It’s where I’ve found things like citrus-glazed duck (wow) and prosciutto-wrapped beef filet (off the charts).  Unless you’re a vegetarian, you can’t go wrong with their beef dishes.  Always a great cut of meat, always cooked precisely to order, always perfectly accompanied.

When Six fumbles, it’s not like you’re screaming, “bomb!” – it’s more like a, “well, that’s not my new favorite dish” sort of way.  When I first moved here, they had a crab chimichanga on the menu (basically, a deep-fried crab burrito).  The crab was too mild to hold up to the deep frying, and there wasn’t any sort of spice to offset the fried blandness.  So, it wasn’t great.  It wasn’t bad, either, mind you – none of it went back to the kitchen.  It just wasn’t anything to write home about.  There was also some risotto dish, the details of which escape memory, that was just OK (to be fair, risotto needs a seriously heavy hand when it comes to salt in order to get beyond the “it’s rice” stage).  It, too, was completely consumed.  It just didn’t compete in the “best thing ever” category.

I would say these mediocre dishes amount to about two percent of Six’s offerings, if not less.  In other words, you have a better chance of winning $100 with that scratch-off ticket you bought at the grocery store than you do of getting a “meh” dish at Six.  If there’s a “bad” dish to be had at Six, I’ve never had it, and I’d be very skeptical of anyone who says they have.

If, on the (very) off chance, you’re unimpressed with your dinner, order desert.  Six’s take on sopapillas is lightly fried extrusions of dough coated in honey with decadent hand-whipped cream on top.  The DIY “s’mores” show up with marshmallows, graham crackers, a Hershey bar and a blazing pu-pu-platter grill.  And there’s a crème brulee of the day.

Yeah, that good.

They’ve got two dense pages of “martinis” and cocktails.  While some of the drinks are a little questionable, they do a faithful gin martini in a town that likes to ask “how MUCH olive juice would you like in that” (ew.) and a surprisingly good sazerac (Jim Beam?  Really?).  Their wine list is short, but of impeccable quality (the awesome vanilla-y Cinnabar Mercury Rising has been a recent mainstay, despite being largely unavailable anywhere else in the area).  On Mondays, the bottles of wine are half off their already reasonable prices.  And they always have a great list of imported beers and micro-brews.

Did I mention I love this place?

I don’t know how Six wound up in Phoebus, but I do know it will be a dark, dark day if it ever leaves.

Grade:  A

Address:  6 East Mellen St., Hampton

Phone:  (757) 722-1466

Website:  http://www.littlebarbistro.com/six-about.php

Here’s what the folks at Urbanspoon say about Six:
Six Little Bar Bistro on Urbanspoon

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