Like a rattler shedding its skin, the Diamondback Brewery has wriggled its way through more culinary styles in the past six months than most restaurants attempt in six years.
The brewpub's search for success has taken it literally all over the map, with forays into such diverse culinary arenas as Asian, Mexican, and Mediterranean cookery. Along the way, Executive Chef Jon Roscher and owners Jim Harris and David Hill have launched four different menus and then abandoned three of them, presumably all in the quest to sell more beer.
There is certainly nothing wrong with experimentation. But constant menu tinkering hinders the development of consistent quality standards in the kitchen and makes it hard to groom a loyal customer base. Harris acknowledges that the restaurant, in the shadow of Jacobs Field and Gund Arena, has struggled to develop an identity that can endear it to its sports-minded target audience. But he thinks the Diamondback has finally found its focus in the Southwest stylings of the present menu.
"Besides," he says, "Mexican food goes good with beer."
It can't help but be an improvement over the restaurant's previous culinary wanderings. My first visit to the three-year-old eatery was late last fall, when the menu still featured a schizoid mix of dishes that ranged from housemade duck-liver páte to empanadas to Chinese five-spice duck to an oven-roasted pork chop served over a "German potato au gratin."
The memory of an inedible appetizer of polenta topped with mushrooms and served in a garlic-and-Marsala demi-glace remains etched on my mind as one of the nastiest things I've ever tasted: The two triangles of rubbery polenta could have been bounced like balls, and the undercooked demi-glace was so alcoholic that a stray spark would have ignited it.
In December, Harris announced that Roscher had changed or redesigned more than 80 percent of the menu items, and touted the new offerings as "an eclectic blend of Southern, Southwestern, and Asian" tastes. Divided into three "mini-menus"--each listing appetizers and entrees specifically chosen to complement one of the brewery's three year-round beers--this incarnation featured everything from Swiss fondue to jambalaya to bratwurst sandwiches.
I never made it to the brewpub to explore those items. Instead, my next visit came in April, just three weeks after Roscher introduced yet another new menu, this one with a strong Mexican accent. Guacamole and quesadillas now shared top billing with roasted-chicken mole and jalapeno ravioli, and even an Asian-flavored, layered Tuna Stack from the earlier menu had been overhauled: Its fried wontons had been replaced with fried tortillas, and a spicy mango glaze took the place of the teriyaki sauce.
Gone also was the menu's division into three parallel sections. Instead, the reunified menu gave parenthetical suggestions for the right beer to accompany each appetizer or entree. (Head brewer Marc Anievas turns out a large assortment of respectable pilsners, lagers, pale ales, stouts, and Belgian-style brews.)
A big burrito came with a side of juicy, smoky-flavored whole pinto beans--a delicious change of pace from the usual bland and gooey refried beans--and some unremarkable rice. Burrito fillings included a choice of chicken, pulled pork, skirt steak, or--for an extra $2--chorizo sausage and shrimp. We went for the sausage and shrimp, and wished we hadn't: The spicy ground pork was gristly, and the tiny shrimp were tough and chewy.
On the other hand, the meat on a pulled-pork sandwich was lean and flavorful, if rather dry. It was rescued by a topping of moist jicama slaw, a wonderful concoction of chopped yellow pepper and green onion, mixed with lots of shredded jicama that was almost as juicy and crisp as a green apple. The sweet, crunchy slaw was a fine addition to the mild barbecued pork and made for a delightful combination of tastes and textures.
However, our smiling server (and whatever other shortcomings the Diamondback may have, management deserves praise for assembling a friendly, helpful, and pleasant waitstaff) said that this newest menu, too, was on its way out: Another menu, which would add some "old favorites" to the Mexican and Southwestern foods, was going to be introduced in a few days!
At this point, I couldn't resist the challenge. I made my third visit to Diamondback the following Saturday with three companions, and we launched an all-out assault on the newest menu.
Close inspection revealed that this version was not so much "different" as it was "repackaged." A layered bean dip had been dropped from the appetizers, and veal flank steak had been yanked from the list of entrees. Two sandwiches--the pulled pork and a catfish sandwich--had been removed from the "South of the Border" section and plugged into the new "All-American Specialties" part of the menu. Similarly, the jalapeno ravioli was no longer a "Southwest Entree," but had been transmogrified into an all-American item. Finally, roasted chicken and a fourteen-ounce porterhouse debuted in the American section.
We began our attack with the guacamole. While plenty of avocados had apparently answered the call to arms, they were sent into the fray without the discernible benefit of seasonings beyond jalapenos and Tabasco. The hot but otherwise flatfooted mix cried out for salt, lemon juice, or other spices to wake it up. But at a whopping $6 for a small scoop accompanied by a handful of tortilla chips, it was a disappointment.
Our next choice was three small empa-nadas filled with a dab of chorizo, a smidgen of papaya, and a touch of cheese. We liked their sweet flavor and crunchy crust, but two of the three little deep-fried turnovers were underdone and pasty inside.
"Crispy" calamari were anything but, having been breaded, deep-fried, and then sunk in a bath of thin "warm salsa," a puree of tomato, onion, cilantro, and serrano peppers. In addition to their unpleasant sogginess, the rings and tentacles were chewy and tough.
Our final appetizer was an enormous bowl of steamed Prince Edward Island mussels in a thin, peppery tomato broth. The shellfish were big, husky specimens, but more than a few of them seemed to have passed their prime, and the one-note broth could do nothing to rejuvenate them.
Our entrees included the perennial Tuna Stack, now a six-layered vertical pile-up of delicious horseradish-and-sour-cream-flavored mashed potatoes topped with crisp fried flour tortillas and pan-seared yellow-fin tuna filets, drizzled with a sweet mango glaze and a tomato salsa. While the potatoes, tortillas, and fruity glaze were definitely on the right track, the dish was ultimately a loser because the dry, mealy tuna had the texture of something from a can.
A grilled pork tenderloin finished with a spicy chipotle-honey-and-orange-juice glaze was better: fairly tender and with plenty of flavor. Like many of the other entrees, it came with those tasty mashed potatoes and a simple mixture of broccoli, summer squash, carrots, and zucchini. Although many kitchens treat this kind of veggie mix as an afterthought, the Diamondback's did it proud.
From the "All-American" portion of the menu, we tried the grilled porterhouse steak. The thin cut was tender, and the medium-rare meat had a big, beefy taste that made our mouths water.
Our final selection was a pasta special that combined al dente tomato fettuccine with pieces of artichoke heart, moist strips of grilled chicken, and a wealth of spectacularly sweet, plump sun-dried tomatoes in a creamy basil sauce. Everything about the dish was right, and it would seem to deserve a spot on the regular menu--after the next revision, of course.
Most of the Diamondback's dessert selections come from commercial sources. Worth a try is the creamy chocolate Kahlua Cake, a rich but not-too-sweet creation of chocolate mousse, chocolate ganache, and a touch of Kahlua. We also liked the remarkably intense and velvety raspberry sorbet, which is housemade. A slice of dense carrot cake was good, but was garnished with an odd combination of whipped cream, fruit sauce, and a whole strawberry.
Diamondback's decor is an engaging blend of styles and attitudes. The cavernous 25,000-square-foot, three-story space is divided into a series of dining rooms--some with a full bar and pool tables, others with a dance floor, and all with a sense of faded opulence and dusty glory that makes the Diamondback seem like the set for a post-apocalyptic film noir; you never know what you'll discover at the end of the next corridor, but you can't wait to get there and find out.
Likewise, although the food is still uneven, there are signs that the Diamondback has finally found the right path. After all, Roscher comes to Cleveland by way of Santa Fe and California; his Southwestern menu would seem to be a natural selection. If he, Harris, and Hill could indeed develop a culinary identity for the restaurant that was as interesting as the building itself, they'd really be on to something.
Diamondback Brewery. 724 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland. 216-771-1988. Breakfast, daily 6:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Lunch, daily 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner, Monday-Thursday and Sunday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.
Crispy Calamari $8
Prince Edward Island Mussels $7
Grilled Pork Tenderloin $17
Tuna Stack $23
Pasta Special $18.95
Porterhouse Steak $21
Pulled-Pork Sandwich $8
Burrito With Shrimp and Chorizo $11
Kahlua Cake $5
Carrot Cake $4.50
Raspberry Sorbet $1.