It's early evening, still blessedly warm, and the new glass doors of 13.5% Wine + Food (1117 W. 36th St.,  889-1064, 135winebar.com) are wide open, welcoming in scant traces of twilight. Some folks perched street side on the restaurant's signature orange bar stools pause from their drinks to greet a friend walking down 36th Street. Chatter wanes, then heightens as a puppy—all paws and ears—shimmies by, its owners in tow.
As I sit just inside the restaurant, halfway between the darkness of the moody, mod interior and the fading light on the street, I get the feeling that Hampden is downright cosmopolitan, thanks to 13.5's singular vibe. The restaurant isn't as die-hard hipster as the Corner Charcuterie Bar or The Food Market, not as quietly modest as Café Cito or as conceptual as Arômes. It's glossy, more stylized, and somehow it manages to be both sleek and comfortable.
There have been recent renovations to the space: the aforementioned doors, the relocation of the kitchen to the basement, and an expanded lounge area. But the biggest change is the addition of Cyrus Keefer (formerly of Birroteca and Fork & Wrench) to the kitchen as executive chef. Keefer had planned to open his own joint in Hampden, but when that venture fell through, he instead took the job at 13.5. It may be selfish to say it, but his loss is clearly 13.5's (and our) gain.
In May, Keefer told former Sun dining critic Richard Gorelick that he wanted to expand both 13.5's menu and portion size. "I didn't want small plates," Keefer was quoted as saying, and suggested that "medium plates" were the way to go. I am happy to confirm that Keefer is a man of his word. I am also happy to confirm that his work in the kitchen remains spectacular.
Keefer's menu (which changes frequently) retain some old 13.5 favorites, such as the goat-cheese dumplings tossed with capers and smoked tomato we saw on many tables. The menu divides neatly into "First," "Second," and "Third," with each category listing roughly half a dozen options. At the time we dined, Firsts included mounds of glossy, roasted Brussels sprouts and the modestly labeled "warm mushroom fricassee" ($12), a jumble of wild mushrooms laced with Madeira and herbs served on a schmear of fontina so creamy it could have passed for butter (or polenta), rather than cheese (though its earthy, animal tang gave it away). Only a little bread to wipe the plate would have made this truly heavenly dish even better.
As you move through the menu, portions get larger and preparations feel more substantial. Seconds veer into pizza and salad territory, but oh what pizza and salads. There's a simple pizza with fresh mozzarella and ricotta, but if that's too tame, you can also order the snail French-bread pizza with chorizo. Frisee salad ($14) feels luxurious, looks small in its oversized white dish, and packs a big punch. Tangled up with the spiky leaves are slices of soft chorizo and a generous amount of lobster, all bound together with a subtle truffle vinaigrette and a drippy soft egg that, once punctured, adds a layer of creaminess.
Items in the Third section can easily be considered entrees, and some, such as the Eastern Shore Paella ($27), are large enough to share. That said, sharing a dish precludes sampling other clever, creative options, like a special burger larded with ground bacon or another special, the pork chop sandwich ($18). If you've ever spent time in Iowa, this sandwich will seem familiar—except Keefer's breaded pork tenderloin includes the bone, the pickles are house-made, and the Brussels sprout slaw has the kick of kimchi. Served up in a cast-iron skillet, it's both novel and home-style.
Eastern Shore Paella gets the skillet treatment, too. And it also plays with regionalism, tucking half a dozen plump and mahogany-colored chicken wings into a crispy mix of corn, zucchini, and rice flecked with crabmeat. In some ways, the texture feels more like fried rice than paella, but that's a taxonomy quibble. Whatever the name, it is distinctly Maryland.
And then there's the octopus cacciatore ($21): extraordinarily tender octopus, almost creamy in texture, napped in a sauce of roasted tomatoes thickened with dabs of wood-smoked polenta that function more like barley (or tapioca) rather than as a bed for the rest of the dish. There's a richness and a smoky depth to the dish that makes you taste and consider, and then taste and consider some more.
13.5 offers cheese and meat carts and a small selection of sweets, including a perfect vanilla pot de crème under a slick of peach gelèe. The wine list remains expansive, and cocktails make for hard decisions (the Sherwood Gardens with Lillet, St. Germain, basil, and lemon is a good bet for $10), which makes it surprising that the sangria runs far too sweet and reminiscent of bubblegum.
Still, the overall feeling at 13.5 is one of satisfaction. Keefer, as is his wont, is stretching out in the kitchen and doing exciting work, shaking up the menu enough for the foodies and offering great versions of standard favorites (if I can judge from the couple next to me who devoured a steak frites with what felt like joy). The oversized china, the pops of orange, the vintage lighting all add up to a place where you want to linger and savor both food and atmosphere. It was prescient to add more tables to the lounge area. If Keefer stays around, they will be needed.
13.5% Wine + Food is open Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 p.m.-midnight, and Sunday 4-9 p.m.eefer,