In the mood for something fun and casual, we headed over to the bar at The Essex for Happy Hour the other night. We heard there was a new menu: less experimental and less expensive, and our interest was piqued. While we loved the food at our previous forays, the experience had been a little uneven and, well, over-the-top. This time, we pulled up to the bar for a martini (apple, an intentional ironic 90’s throwback but a fresh, tart sip won me over), and dug into a simpler menu of small plates. My husband, an Erie boy, couldn’t get over the fresh fried smelts, a dish he had grown up with, this time elevated by crisp, skinny truffle fries, and I order Bulgogi wherever I can (a Korean bowl of barbecued marinated chunks of beef over rice). My salad was a plate of slim slices of poached pear and blue cheese with a Reisling gelee (okay, a bit fancy, but, oh yum). Our friend feasted on pork belly buns. So, yes, this is the way we like to eat. Everything was mainly in the $10 range, there’s a burger on the menu, and plenty of other small plates to please. We would have been very happy to stop there. But Colt, the owner was in the house, and he can’t help but flex his cooking muscles when he spies some willing mouths to feed. He asked if we’d like to try something to eat. Oh, well, sure! Dishes started tumbling out of the kitchen: a beet and butter poached lobster pasta that I would NEVER have chosen, was one of the most fantastic things I’ve put in my mouth in a long time; a cube of short rib in an onion reduction that appeared to be a chunk of chocolate cake, was almost as rich, but absolutely right-sized, and the three of us fought over the tender bits. Poached salmon practically melted in my mouth. The guy can’t help himself with foie gras and neither can I. This time he served it up with tropical fruit embellishments for a fresh take. But STOP. Here’s the thing. Colt is painfully aware now of what the market here will bear. You can’t eat fancy schmancy every night. He’s got popular weeknight specials like burgers on Tuesday and tacos on Thursday (I hear it’s PACKED), and he just really wants to feed you. That’s this guy’s game, whether high or low, he loves to cook. So if you haven’t tried The Essex, or haven’t been back because it wasn’t your thing, trust me, give it another go. You’ll find plenty to eat in the $10 range, and if you’ve got a hankering for foie gras, there’s that, too. See the new menu here. Smelts! Bacon & Clam Ramen Duo of Octopus and Pork Belly with black garlic, chickpea and orange.