- Walter Novak
- Charming Barons, where balanced meals are those that don't fall from the server's tray.
My guess is that restaurateur Brett Babick sometimes feels like the guy in that joke -- the one whose doctor tells him, "I've got good news, and I've got bad news." In this case, the good news is that his Gateway restaurant and microbrewery, Barons of Cleveland, has been packed during downtown games and events since its July opening. The bad news? The operation sometimes falters under the onslaught.
Take, for example, a not-so-long-ago Saturday evening, a "worst-case scenario" developing minutes after the Indians finished their final doubleheader of the season and shortly before curtain for the Who concert at Gund Arena. The labyrinthine space, former home of the Diamondback Brewery, was bursting at the seams with ball fans and concertgoers; in fact, even with reservations, we waited about 10 minutes for a table -- and then found ourselves relegated to the smoking section. Our unflappable but clearly overburdened waitress fought her way through the crowd soon afterward to take our drink orders, but it was at least 20 thirsty minutes until our beverages actually arrived. We had enough sense to forgo ordering appetizers -- why invite trouble? -- but then we twiddled our thumbs for another 40 minutes until our entrées finally showed up.
Other patrons weren't so patient: We spotted several surly parties stalking out, grumbling loudly about the long wait. Meanwhile, would-be diners who were seated after we arrived were being advised to stick to drink orders only. "Our kitchen is so swamped, I can't promise your meals will be out in a reasonable time," we overheard them being told by honest staffers.
So that's the bad news. As for the good news: I have to tell you that, despite the side order of chaos that accompanied our meal, our server earned our respect by doing what she could do well, apologizing for things that were beyond her control, and offering to comp the cost of our way-tardy entrées. Likewise, Babick and his kitchen staff went above and beyond all expectations, serving up surprisingly well-prepared fare under what certainly must have been trying circumstances.
Not that Barons does particularly fancy grub. Probably the most la-di-da item on the large (and rather jumbled) menu is the 16-ounce Pub Porterhouse: an inexpensive yet surprisingly flavorful cooked-to-order steak, accompanied by a large mixed-greens-and-cheese "Dawghouse" salad, perfect ham-and-veggie-studded rice pilaf, and a pile of nicely sautéed, buttered, and seasoned broccoli, cauliflower, carrot, and red onion. And more good news: a 16-ounce pour of freshly brewed beer cost only an additional dollar with the meal.
But most of the other offerings are more homey, designed to deliver a taste of Cleveland's ethnic heritage. Owner Babick says he views the restaurant (named in honor of Cleveland's former world-class brewmeisters) as an homage to all that's good about local eats. To this end, he has searched out regional purveyors of such Northeast Ohio standards as pierogi and brats, and has turned to family recipes for much of Barons' Eastern European fare.
With all this in mind, we had geared up our taste buds for old-fashioned favorites like Angie's Stuffed Cabbage and Hunky Stew (a.k.a. Hungarian goulash), but alas, that was not to be. Our server told us the former was less than freshly made on the night of our visit, and the latter was unavailable. However, an order of Poppy's Paprikash was big and tasty, starring a rich sour-cream sauce that tickled our tongues with the flavor of sweet Hungarian paprika. The bad news here was that the dish was almost nothing but the sauce, along with rice and a handful of tender dumplings: The chicken breasts promised in the menu description turned out, on this occasion at least, to be nothing more than four small bites of meat. A thick slab of tender Mozzarella Meatloaf was more to the liking of our carnivorous companions: Slathered with a first-rate tomato sauce and sprinkled with shredded cheese, the hearty dish came with a Dawghouse salad and a choice of cole slaw, beans, rice, oven-roasted vegetables, bread, or potato.
We were happy to find grilled walleye on the menu -- an appreciated change of pace from the standard breaded-and-fried version. And considering how hectic things were on the Saturday night we visited, we were impressed with the attentive preparation that the dish had received. The modest-sized, well-seasoned filet had been snatched off the grill at precisely the right moment, so that it was barely done and delicate enough to remind us why walleye became so popular in the first place.
Barons' menu is the same at lunch and dinner, and we found a weekday lunchtime visit to be a good deal less frenzied than our dinner trip. We started with an appetizer of Southern-Fried Pickles, breaded and deep-fried dill-pickle spears that, for pickle lovers, were pretty good. We followed up with a cup of the kitchen's jalapeño-spiked Fairland Hills Farm Chili, a well-rounded mix of beans and ground beef in a thick, dark tomato sauce in which the fire was nicely balanced with true flavor. As a main event, we chose the Bohemian Pierogi: four fat, obviously fresh, potato-filled dumplings, snuggled beneath a scoop of sour cream and slices of sautéed onion and mushroom. Although the dish was listed on a part of the menu that seemed to be devoted to appetizers, the serving was plenty big enough for a lunch entrée.
From the sandwich selections, including burgers, brats, corned beef, Philly Steak, and a tasty-sounding chicken gyro, we selected the delightful Beerwich: an enormous open-faced hot ham-and-beer-cheese rarebit served on beer-battered rye toast and sided with a mountain of freshly cut fries. This guilty pleasure -- so cheesy, rich, and scrumptiously salty -- was big enough that we took half of it home, yet good enough that we ended up nibbling on it in the car!
Given Barons' ethnic emphasis, we were disappointed in the mundane desserts on the menu. Why serve run-of-the-mill brownie sundaes and ice-cream pies when the city abounds with great freshly made strudels, cassata cakes, and sweet-potato pies? And in fact, Babick says he is in negotiations with some local bakeries to provide more authentic Cleveland sweets to future diners. Until then, the good news is that, with the calories you save by skipping over the uninteresting desserts, you can indulge in one of brewmaster Marc Anievas's handcrafted beers, including the delightfully crisp and refreshing Brewer's Star Belgian and the deep, dark Dunham's Tavern Tonic.
Barons will, no doubt, face the same challenge as all other Gateway eateries: keeping the seats filled when no events are on tap. We really like the concept of a casual restaurant that celebrates Cleveland's own ethnic cuisine, rather than trying to copy the food and atmosphere of trendier towns, and we admire the kitchen and dining room staff's grace under pressure. These factors alone should win the restaurant favorable recognition. Now, if Babick et al. can balance the inevitable ebb and flow of patrons so that the restaurant's busiest times are handled as smoothly as the slower ones, Barons may well develop into a year-round winner.