It didn't take long the other night for me and my wife to fall into a familiar pattern. As I manically flipped the television from station to station, she pleaded with me to settle on a single program. What was different about the situation was that we weren't planted on the couch at home; we were out to dinner at RJ Boland's.
Having a personal TV in every booth might be great for watching the Cavs, but let me tell you, it's murder on dinner conversation.
Nestled smack dab in the heart of the Gateway District, RJ Boland's is just a short stroll from Quicken Loans Arena and Progressive Field. Open since November, the bar and restaurant is a natural choice for folks headed to the game or those looking for a comfortable place to watch it. The roomy and attractive space, which had previously been home to Diamondback Brewery, Phil the Fire and Waterhouse, features crystal-clear HDTVs on practically every flat surface.
But sports bars are notoriously hit or miss when it comes to crowds. The joint that was jumping one night is often a sleeper the next. So, in a wise attempt to lure guests every day and every night, owner Rossi Penney set his culinary sights well above nachos, wings and burgers. To execute the slightly ambitious modern American menu, Penney turned to Doug Fulton, a chef who has worked locally at McCormick & Schmick's, Blake's and Hyde Park. Part upscale pub grub, part bistro, the lengthy menu covers most appetites and budgets regardless the time of day.
Ordering a $15 pork chop at most sports bars is asking for trouble. But the one served here is thick, juicy and grilled to perfection, just as promised. The brined T-bone chop is gilded with just enough fat to keep things interesting, and the seasoning is aggressive without being overly salty. Fulton goes out of his way to utilize local products, another rarity at sports-bar-type eateries. Cheddar-stuffed pierogies ($12.95), sautéed in butter and onions, are made here in town. Both the sausage and the pasta in the sausage-and-peppers dish ($13.95) are Cleveland-bred. While we appreciate the texture of the fresh Ohio City Pasta in the shrimp diablo ($14.95), the sauce tastes like pure olive oil. Some banana peppers and hot pepper flakes do not bring much flavor to the party.
Barroom snackers have their choice of more than a dozen appetizers, most of which are familiar but updated classics. Looking like a fully loaded baked potato that somebody stepped on, the potato bombs ($7.95) are not going to win any beauty awards. But that doesn't stop us from destroying every bit of evidence. Fluffy baked redskins are smooshed, then covered with melted cheese, real crumbled bacon, sour cream and scallions. The beef sliders ($7.95) suffer from overcooking, but the bun-cheese-onion-pickle package is a winner. Obviously made in house and cooked to order, the gooey fried mozzarella ($7.95) will surely please any fans of the genre. Calamari ($9.95) is commensurably crunchy, tossed with zippy peppers and served with a somewhat gloppy sweet chili sauce.
Boland's really shines come lunchtime, when the selection is equally as large but the prices aren't. In addition to the discounted dinner entrées, there are a dozen creative sandwiches and burgers, the latter of which are a full half-pound. Almost a foot long, the fried-fish po boy ($8.95) fills a butter-toasted hoagie with crisp breaded fish, tomato, coleslaw and an onion ring. The price includes a mountain of fries. Soup and salad buffs are well taken care of. In fact, Boland's makes some of the best New England clam chowder ($2.95) I can remember tasting. Smoky, loaded with clams, and more creamy than milky, the bisque is the antidote to a brisk winter's day. For the wedge salad ($6.95), a full quarter head of brittle-crisp iceberg is drenched in creamy Maytag blue-cheese dressing and sprinkled with crunchy bacon.
Penney, a Cleveland native, has years of restaurant management experience. No doubt the result of that experience, the well-trained wait staff seems to actually care about its customers. We didn't get a face when we asked one to turn down the music. After sending back a glass of over-the-hill wine, our waiter actually thanked us for the impromptu wine tutorial. Want to substitute sweet-potato fries for the regular ones? No problemo, kimosabe.
Those familiar with the property might recall that it is huge, running clear from Prospect to Huron, with an additional floor above. Right now, plans call for a high-end lounge to open upstairs just in time for baseball season.