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The Hong Kong Bar

Restaurants can be like old friends, the repositories of cherished memories and so reliable that you never leave unfulfilled.

And then there are the places that had so much potential, only to close their doors unexpectedly or, in a drastic move, change chefs, decor or the eatery's entire concept. Ashland's The Hong Kong Bar did just this several years back, first scrapping an ingenious Pan-Asian, prix-fixe menu and then selling out to a new restaurant, altogether.

My husband, Will, and I mourned The Hong Kong Bar, reminiscing about superior presentation and flavors enjoyed in a romantic perch atop the old Mason building's third floor. The spot's new restaurant — Zingaro — failed to impress with Spanish-Italian fusion cuisine.

Imagine our excitement when I heard that The Hong Kong Bar was poised for a comeback. Owner Chris Hart had been pinning survival on specialty cocktails since the separate sales of the restaurant space and the adjacent bar area, which remained literally The Hong Kong Bar. Following the demise of Zingaro, Hart decided to fire up the kitchen again.

He started tentatively, debuting a limited menu of small plates in December, before calling up some old favorites this month. A small-plates approach promotes family-style sharing, Hart says, adding that he's looking to create a more casual, affordable spot on Ashland's plaza.

Retaining the subtitle of "supper club" — along with the original plush carpeting, polished woodwork and rattan furniture — the space still evokes a colonial-era British officers' club in the Far East rather than a casual hang-out.

Pricing many of the menu offerings between $4 and $15 may look like affordability, but many of these dishes are appetizer portions. So a comparison with other plaza restaurants seems somewhat misplaced.

My first visit with a friend, however, didn't leave us hungry. We each ordered a bowl of hot and sour soup ($4) and shared a plate of lettuce rolls ($7) and a bowl of pad Thai ($15).

The soup was almost as I remembered it, spicy with a drizzle of chili oil and the meaty texture of shiitake and Chinese black mushrooms plumping up the broth. The overall consistency, however, gave the impression that the soup had been left to congeal a bit in the pot.

It was a theme repeated in the following two dishes. The chopped chicken filling for the lettuce rolls had a dull, dry exterior while the pad Thai's rice noodles had developed a crust and a gumminess characteristic of languishing in the pan before being served. The sweet and spicy peanut sauce, however, was delicious, and the grilled prawns probably the best I'd had in years.

Hopeful that The Hong Kong Bar would work out the kinks, I returned with Will and some friends several weeks later. The addition of rosy lamps on each table and directional ceiling lights had since brightened the atmosphere, transforming the space from tavern to restaurant.

A slightly expanded menu revealed two old favorites — lemon fish ($14) and chili prawns ($12). Since Will ordered the hot and sour soup, I decided to take a chance on dumpling soup ($7), one of the evening's specials. Appetizers of edamame ($4) and lettuce rolls served the table.

This time, each dish seemed freshly prepared, although the dumpling soup was tepid. While the kitchen reheated it, I slurped some hot and sour, not quite so thick this time and awash in more silken tofu cubes. Temperature aside, I wished I had forgone the dumpling soup, which while full of cabbage and greens, didn't measure up flavor-wise.

Neither the fish nor the prawns were as we remembered. Although the cod was perfectly cooked, the panko batter lacked crunch, and the lemony sauce was rather thin. The fish used to be dressed with what amounted to a sweet syrup.

And rather than the fiery, sauce-laden stir-fry of yore, Will's prawns had been transformed into a vinegary accompaniment to a green salad. A friend's pad Thai, however, had almost attained perfection.

As could The Hong Kong Bar, itself. It didn't make quite the impression we were looking for but has enough promise to once again become like an old friend.

— Sarah Lemon