- Walter Novak
- The brewing company: If elbow room's your preference, stop by on a weeknight.
If the parks and sidewalks of Rocky River seem suspiciously barren on Saturday nights, you don't have to look far to figure out why. Just take a peek inside the reservation-free Rocky River Brewing Company. It wasn't even 8 on a recent overcast Saturday, and already the vivacious crowd was four and five deep at the bar, and the wait for a table was nearly an hour.
It wasn't as if we could pass the time in pleasant conversation, either. The noise was climbing to levels that rival the runways at Hopkins. Ditto for enjoying the background music: Every now and then, a thumping bass line would break through the din, only to be quickly sucked back into the auditory muck. In fact, there was nothing much to do but start drinking, and that's precisely what we did, elbowing aside some less-agile patrons (see what too much beer can do to you, kids?) to grab coveted seats at the imposing wood-and-granite bar and abandoning ourselves to the pleasures of brewmaster Matt Cole's seasonal creations. Actually, it was a pretty cool way to pass the time.
On this night, our alternatives ranged from pint drafts of Merlin's Black Magic Stout, a manly blend of deeply roasted malts and coffee beans beneath a creamy, coffee-colored head, to the breezy Clock Tower Summer Ale, a lissome honey of a brew with a light body and lingering sweetness. There was also a small list of middle-of-the-road wines and enough hard stuff to whip up anyone's favorite cocktail. But probably it was the beer that accounted for everyone's jolly mood, even in the face of dinnertime deprivation. Once it was finally our turn for a table, we were surprised to see how small the dining area actually is; no doubt this contributes to the lengthy wait. An attractive, recently renovated outdoor deck can accommodate perhaps 90 additional diners during warmer months and may shave a few minutes off the weekend wait for a table, on nights when the weather cooperates. And if you simply can't tolerate a long delay before dinner, try visiting at another time: There is rarely a wait for tables during the week.
The microbrewery and restaurant opened in August 1998, the brainchild of brothers Gary and Bob Cintron and their partners, Joseph Bordonaro and Charles Nagy (yes, that Charles Nagy). Their menu is a large and fairly ambitious one -- at least by brewpub standards, wherein the usual nachos and artichoke dip are supplemented by moderately priced gourmet pizzas, salads, sandwiches, steaks, pasta, and seafood brought forth in ample portions. In some restaurants, such a broad array of items can lead to culinary meltdowns, almost guaranteeing that somebody's competencies eventually will be exceeded. But Chef Joshua Montagu and his crew deserve credit: Despite the crowd, nothing we sampled was less than adequate, and several of the dishes were quite good.
Among the winners was a 16-ounce long-boned rib-eye steak, a thin but full-flavored chop served on a pile of tasty garlic mashed potatoes along with a passel of nicely cooked carrots, a tangle of crunchy breaded onion threads, and a savory roasted-garlic and rosemary reduction. Freshly baked bread was supposed to be included with the meal (otherwise, it's available as a $1 side dish), but it never showed up; even without it, though, the dish was so generously apportioned and satisfying that we thought it a bargain at $18.95.
However, the missing bread did point out one of the kitchen's shortcomings: namely, that some dishes did not seem to quite live up to their billing. We searched in vain for the reported bacon on the mammoth pile of tricolored River Nachos, for example; we tried without success to detect the Bermuda onion on the chicken-ranch gourmet pizza. The properly chewy baguette that sandwiched our grilled portobello mushroom cap was nice enough, but we aren't prepared to swear that it was really "Tuscan onion-parmesan bread." And the crunchy little onions atop our steak were a pleasure, but were they really "herbed-chili" seasoned?
Perhaps if the kitchen had been a bit more generous with those seasonings, it could have overcome another one of its lapses: the lackluster flavor of some of the food. Those nachos, for example, had no zing, despite the presence of plenty of sour cream, a moderate amount of melted cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses, and a modicum of freshly made pico de gallo. Instead, they cried out (in a weak little voice, for sure) for a spark of jalapeño, a tweak of salt, or maybe even that long-lost bacon to lend them some sass. Much the same can be said of the bit of guacamole (a $1 add-on) that accompanied the nachos: Bland and uninteresting, it begged for some lemon juice and salt to give it a kick in the pants. And a cup of golden beer-cheese soup, made with the brewpub's own Cooper's Gold Kolsch, was warm and comforting, but so indistinctly seasoned that even now a description eludes me.
The jury was divided on the ultimate pizzazz factor of the chicken-ranch pizza. While a companion dismissed it as "blah," I found it plenty tasty, with lots of tender chargrilled chicken breast and melted Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses, a sprinkling of scallion greens and crumbled bacon, and a big bouquet of roasted garlic. And though it is true that not everything exactly sizzled with flavor, I appreciated the fact that the kitchen refrained from that frequent brewpub ploy of oversalting the edibles in the apparent hopes of getting diners to drink more beer.
Whatever else you order at the Rocky River Brewing Company, plan to snag a side of the beer-battered fries. Crisp and crunchy on the outside and creamy soft within, they are a particularly good palate-pleaser, even if they aren't made in-house. They paired up well with a big honey-and-ale-marinated chicken breast sandwich, topped with lots of caramelized sweet onion, saut´ed mushrooms, and melted Muenster cheese, on a toasted ciabatta roll. Likewise, they were a fine accompaniment to a well-prepared portobello mushroom sandwich, with a juicy grilled cap set off with sliced tomato and a layer of melted Gouda cheese. Other good entr´e choices included meaty, meltingly tender barbecued baby-back ribs, served with those beer-battered fries and an interesting balsamic-tweaked homemade cole slaw, and a bowl of flavorful smoked chicken and penne pasta, with bits of roasted bell pepper and artichoke heart, in a rich, garlicky, homemade Asiago-cheese cream sauce.
With all the other things the small kitchen has to cook up, it's apparently too much to expect it to turn out a regularly scheduled array of homemade desserts as well. So instead, diners in search of sweet endings generally face a lineup of the usual commercial cheesecakes, tortes, and pies. Our crestfallen expressions at her recitation of the ho-hum dessert choices prompted our friendly server to urge us to try the Chocolate Tower Torte. It was a good tip: The sky-high wedge of moist chocolate layer cake, divided by a thick stratum of wonderfully creamy chocolate-fudge frosting, was beyond complaint.
So, given all of the above -- the noise, the crowds, and the kitchen's occasional minor stumbles -- is the Rocky River Brewing Company really worth a visit? Only if your idea of Saturday night fun is killing time with a bunch of friends, laughing loudly, downing brewskis, and following it all up with a decent meal. If that doesn't sound good to you . . . well, take two chill pills and call me in the morning.