Sometimes the search for good pub food seems as futile as Don Quixote's quest for the lovely Dulcinea. In many cities, the sad truth is that good suds often means food duds.
Of course, I held out hope that Cleveland might be different. After all, in the Great Lakes Brewing Co. we have one of the nation's premier brewpubs, with award-winning beers that have caught the attention of beer lovers around the world.
And co-owner Dan Conway says that at the Great Lakes Brewery, the food doesn't take a back seat to the beer.
"We do everything we can to be sure the food and the beer are on equal footing," he says.
Does that mean Cleveland's oldest and most respected microbrewery really dishes out victuals as compelling and consistent as its fine handcrafted beers?
In a word (sigh), no. After two recent visits, we found the food at the Great Lakes Brewery remains less impressive than the beers and the place itself.
Brothers Pat and Dan Conway started their microbrewery and pub ten years ago in a cluster of 100-year-old buildings on the city's near West Side. Since then, they have taken care to maintain the historic feel of the old bricks and beams that house their business.
The brewpub occupies space that once was home to a tavern and a feed store. Inside, it is decorated with brewing memorabilia. One of my favorite touches is a haphazard stack of antique wooden crates piled up on a partition between the dining room and the kitchen. The names on the crates recall the glory days of Cleveland's beer-brewing past: Forest City Brewery, Black Forest Beer, and my grandfather's favorite, POC ("Pride of Cleveland," of course). I can clearly remember how Grandpa, a hard-working, hard-drinking Italian immigrant, kept a stash of the stuff hidden beneath the potting bench in his greenhouse.
Today, it's the GLB brews that reign supreme in Cleveland. From the smooth, well-balanced Dortmunder Gold lager to the toasty amber Eliot Ness and the complex, bittersweet Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, GLB meticulously crafts a fine selection of temperature- and pressure-controlled beers and ales, available on tap and at retail locations throughout the region.
Still, Dan Conway admits that as the microbrewery has expanded its production and retail distribution, in-house beer sales have flattened. What that means, he says, is that the staff has had to find other ways to attract customers. And that has meant a "new emphasis" on what goes on in the kitchen.
Now, I'll be honest. Despite GLB's not inconsiderable charms, I have never found the food to be among them. In fact, although we were frequent visitors during the first five years the brewery was up and running, bringing guests from Italy, Arizona, New York, and Columbus to share its beer and history, we haven't been back for the past five.
The reason? Food that never seemed to quite live up to its billing, flavors that were generally uninspired, and a dawning awareness that a six-pack of Dortmunder Gold and a plate of homemade pasta was a better deal than a meal in the brewpub.
So Dan's promise that changes were in place in the kitchen was enough to send me running to the phone to make Saturday-night reservations for a dining companion and myself.
Dulcinea, here we come.
GLB's kitchen, under the direction of executive chef Rob Ulmann, features what the owners call "fresh, regional cuisine," with a special eye toward taste-pleasing combinations of food and beer. The menu includes several suggestions for appropriate brews to accompany appetizers and entrees, and the knowledgeable servers are more than happy to make recommendations.
Food items range from the soups, salads, and sandwiches that appear on both the lunch and dinner menu to the substantial entrees that only come out at night.
On our first visit to GLB, we chose a pint of Dortmunder Gold and a pint of the more full-bodied Eliot Ness to begin our meal. We got guidance from our motherly server, who correctly pegged us as sissy beer drinkers and steered us away from the more robust Burning River Pale Ale we had been considering.
Our brews were indeed good complements to my cup of rich, cheesy Stilton Cheddar Soup, made with Dortmunder Gold, and my companion's spicy baked Artichoke Crock, the brewpub's signature appetizer.
While the silken soup, full of comforting bits of celery and served with a paper-thin, buttery crouton on top, could hold its own on any Cleveland menu, we were surprised at how little complexity the hot artichoke pate offered. With its puree of artichoke hearts, Parmesan cheese, mayonnaise, garlic, banana pepper rings, and cayenne, it was surprisingly flavorless beyond a sneaky sensation of heat.
Although the menu promised "crispy pita chips" to accompany the crock, what we got instead were wedges of nice, soft, chewy pita bread.
Not that there is anything wrong with pita bread. But if the menu specified chips, why did the kitchen serve us bread? we wondered. As it turned out, this was only the first instance of the kitchen's failure to produce what the menu specified, an example of the type of inconsistency that plagues the kitchen.
For entrees, we had our choice of sixteen dishes, including regional and ethnic specialties such as bratwurst and pierogi (a Cleveland beer food if ever there was one); a savory Italian-accented Brewmaster's Pie with hot and mild Italian sausage, ricotta, and mozzarella; and fresh Lake Erie walleye.
We finally settled on the walleye, which the menu described as "dusted in cornmeal, sauteed, and served with a lemon butter sauce," and the unusual Pretzel Chicken, a breast of chicken coated with Dijon mustard and rolled in a pretzel-and-Parmesan-cheese mixture before being sauteed and served on a mustard ale cream sauce with a "confetti vegetable relish."
Considering the savory description of the walleye, what we got was a major disappointment. While the fish tasted tender and fresh, it was almost entirely flavorless. The kitchen seemed to have changed its mind about the cornmeal and sauteing; instead the mild fillet appeared to have been steamed and then topped with chopped green herbs that did little to infuse it with flavor. The tasty lemon butter sauce appeared to have been applied with an eyedropper; what little of it there was tasted good, but it could hardly rescue the bland fish.
In contrast, a melange of crisp, fresh green beans and broccoli was surprisingly salty. And that was nothing compared with the Calais potatoes (mashed potatoes whipped with onions, leeks, and butter) which were so salty as to be nearly inedible. (Perish the thought that they do that just so we'll drink more beer.)
Happily, my companion fared better with her Pretzel Chicken, two breast fillets well coated with savory crumbs and expertly sauteed so they were crunchy on the outside but meltingly moist and tender on the inside. Again, the mustard ale cream sauce was in scarce supply, and the vegetable confetti was only a half-dozen specks of chopped veggies, but the chicken was so good we didn't miss them.
A large dinner salad of crisp, unadorned romaine was an extra dollar with an entree. We imagined the Porter Scallion dressing we chose would taste of oil, vinegar, malt, and scallions; instead, the dominant taste seemed like soy sauce.
For dessert, we went for the Three-Berry Crisp a la Mode and a slice of the day's featured cheesecake.
The crisp, a generous serving of warm, barely sweetened blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries under a crunchy crumb topping, tasted delicious. Cleveland's own Pierre's vanilla ice cream made the perfect foil for the tart fruits; too bad the tiny scoop was gone well before the crisp was. In any case, I ate up every bite and might have even licked the plate if I hadn't been using my company manners that night.
The evening's cheesecake---chocolate espresso---was a hefty slab of creamy, coffee-flavored cheesecake on a chocolate cookie-crumb crust, enrobed in a firm shell of, yes, more chocolate. It was good, but as with most heavy desserts, a little went a very long way.
Our overall impression was less than entirely favorable. But I figure every establishment is entitled to an off night. Maybe on this particular night an eager helper dropped the salt shaker into the potatoes. Maybe the kitchen ran out of cornmeal. Maybe Dulcinea was giving ol' Don Quixote the slip once again.
But no matter. In the interest of fairness, two weeks later, accompanied by three more hearty diners, I paid a repeat visit to the brewpub to try my luck again.
This time we started off with an appetizer of Walleye Bites---pieces of fresh fish the menu said were "dusted in cornmeal, lightly fried, and served with a spicy Creole tartar sauce."
Once again, what the kitchen served appeared much different from what the menu described. Rather than dusted with cornmeal, the pieces of mild fish appeared to have been dipped in a thick batter and deep fried. The greasy little nuggets were on a par with county-fair food: tasty but far from subtle.
Two of us then moved on to the Thai Curried Porkchop and the Vegetable Phyllo Pie, dishes that had caught my eye on my previous visit.
The thick nine-ounce chop was described as "finished with a curried peanut sauce of coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, chilis, and basil." But although it was well napped with the thin sauce, the generous chop was neither particularly tender nor flavorful. Instead of a complex medley of flavors, the fiery chilis dominated the dish.
The huge Phyllo Pie was more successful. A dome of crisp baked phyllo leaves enclosed layers of ricotta and feta cheeses, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, and spinach. Surrounded on one side by a fresh-tasting roasted tomato sauce and by a mild pesto cream sauce on the other, the dish was as attractive to the eye as to the palate.
Using my feminine wiles, I also persuaded another member of my crew to try the problematic walleye again. Surprise, surprise. If our waitress had put the two meals together, side by side, I don't think anyone would have thought they were the same entree. This time the fillet was unmistakably coated in the promised thin crust of cornmeal and lightly sauteed. Nary a green herb rested upon it; but unfortunately the lemon butter sauce was completely absent too, until a kitchen helper came running to the table with it a moment after the fish arrived.
Again, the tiny drop of tasty sauce wasn't enough to make the mild fish interesting. A wedge of fresh lemon might have helped, but did not accompany the dish.
Our waitress, a nine-year veteran, shrugged when I asked her about the odd difference between the two presentations. Sometimes the kitchen uses more cornmeal, she explained, sometimes it uses less. As for the herbs? Sometimes the kitchen puts them on, and (you guessed it) sometimes it doesn't . . .
And remember the yummy Pretzel Chicken from the first visit? I talked our fourth member into ordering it with the promise she would love it. Silly me. This time the fillets were notably overbrowned on the outside and dry and chewy within. While the garnish of vegetable confetti was more generous, the sauce was still barely there, and this time the chicken could have used the extra moisture.
On the plus side, the steamed vegetables were not oversalted this visit, and the mashed Calais potatoes, while still salty, were no longer inedible.
With the sense that I might be pressing my luck, I suggested the Three-Berry Crisp to our dessert eater. To my relief, it was still as tasty as I remembered. But unlike the generous portion on our first visit, this one was small. And the scoop of ice cream? That's right. This time it was big.
The final word?
No, despite a nice selection of interesting-sounding dishes, the food at GLB has not yet caught up to the consistent high standards set for the beers. If the Conways are serious about taking the brewpub above the ordinary, their creative menu needs to be underpinned by attention to detail and consistent preparation in the kitchen, and flavors, which presently run from bland to fiery with little in between, need to be enhanced.
Until then, that six-pack from the carryout will do just fine. And as for Dulcinea? Ride on, Don Q, ride on.
Great Lakes Brewing Co.
2516 Market Street. (216) 771-4404. Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., Sunday 1 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Great Lakes Brewing Co.
Stilton Cheddar Cheese Soup, $2.95 (cup)
Artichoke Crock, $6.25
Lake Erie Walleye, $13.95
Pretzel Chicken, $10.95
Three-Berry Crisp a la Mode, $3.50
Dortmunder Gold and Eliot Ness beers, $3.25 (pint)