Flavor: Upwardly mobile pub grub
Ambiance: Slightly raucous at times, but generally warm and neighborly
September’s here again, and nothing says fall to me like Guinness and burgers for breakfast.
No stunning autumn landscape, no crisp, blue day, could possibly rival the downright decadent satisfaction that comes from sleeping through a chilly morning, rising around noon, and slowly making my way to a pub to watch a football game with a frosty mug of suds and a slab of meat dripping warm grease from between two sodden, sesame-studded pieces of bread. It may be lazy, over-indulgent, hedonistic behavior – but that’s pretty much the point.
My favorite spot to spend my football days is the Bier Garden. The pub/restaurant stocks more 200 varieties of beer and makes a mean Bloody Mary. The place also features a slew of televisions and subscribes to NFL Sunday Ticket (to the uninitiated, this means they can show any and all games being played around the country). What’s more, the staff doesn’t seem to be bothered by my sometimes raucous game behavior – though throwing that barstool was probably in poor taste.
For this year’s first NFL game – a Patriots/Raiders match staged on a Thursday, for some reason – we grabbed a table in the open, marble-floored area in front of the giant projector screen that’s unfurled for football, baseball, basketball and reportedly even the Tour de France. This particular space, which was originally a lobby of sorts for the Haywood Park Atrium, has been taken over by the Bier Garden’s tables and can get rather rowdy at times; it’s one of the few downtown watering holes that can easily accommodate several larger groups at once. Nearby, the Bier Garden has eaten up other portions of the space with a variety of video games and pool and air hockey tables.
We were presented with the beer menu, a rather hefty volume supplemented with an insert bearing the names of all the new high-test arrivals. We selected the Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter – a tribute to the late, great Hunter S. – but were disappointed to learn that the beer was not presently available. Turns out it’s a pretty hot commodity that gets snapped up almost immediately upon arrival. We (only half-jokingly) requested to be put on a mailing list for notification of its return and settled for a pitcher of Guinness instead.
If I had not been on the job, I most likely would have ordered the tried and true football accompaniment – a thick and juicy burger, perhaps spiked with a slathering of blue cheese for the extra flavor and fat factor. However, I decided to see what else I could eat that might add weight to a food review, not just my belly.
To my mild surprise, the kitchen seems to have gone through a bit of an overhaul as of late. Besides the standard pub grub of loaded nachos, fries and quesadillas, there’s now more sophisticated fare. There’s a wilted spinach salad, a Caesar fancied up with smoked cashews, an open-faced smoked-crab quesadilla with avocado and roasted-corn salsa, among other offerings. There was a small selection of specials; on this particular evening, you could dine on Creole crab cakes with bourbon-fried green tomatoes, pickled okra and a remoulade, and finish the meal with a vanilla-almond crème brûlé.
To borrow a horrendously irritating catch phrase someone has obviously kicked it up a notch. There is, indeed, a new chef, and according to our waitress, the changes have been fairly well received.
We ordered a smoked salmon mousse “martini” as an appetizer and leaned back to watch the game. Though we could have seen this particular game at home in the comfort of our own living room, there’s just something more fun about enjoying it with a politely unruly mob of people who were, for the most part, causing quite a ruckus for the Raiders (or, perhaps more accurately, against the Patriots).
The salmon mousse arrived quite cleverly presented in a martini glass with a few cocktail olives and fried angel hair pasta to serve as swizzle sticks. The rather generous scoop of mousse was crowned with several crescent-shaped lemon-poppy lavash crackers. The “mousse” was not quite, well, mousse-y. Though it had a good flavor, it was fairly dense with cream cheese, and would have perhaps been more at home spread on a bagel. However, the presentation was impressive, and the dish helps to add a bit of class to the menu selections.
We also sampled the jalapeño hummus and salsa duo, a relatively healthy nosh and a good alternative to dairy-laden nachos. The dips are served with a variety of raw vegetables, a few pita wedges and some chips. The hummus was very good, garlicky and spicy. The salsa was decent, but my Picky Companion complained briefly of something sweet in the mix. A mild salsa was a good choice, perhaps, as two spicy dips might have been overkill.
For my entree, I ordered the Jamaican jerked pork loin. It arrived atop a veritable sea of black beans, crowned with a bit of pineapple salsa and finished with cilantro-infused oil. The pork itself was excellent – the meat was moist and incredibly flavorful with spices and the smokiness of the grill. The accompaniments were a bit bland, however, and added little to the dish, though the sweet/tart flavor of the pineapple was a fine match for the jerked pork.
My Picky Companion could not help but order a burger, this being the start of a new football season; he got it complete with blue cheese and served with some good, well-seasoned fries. The Bier Garden never fails to turn out a good, solid burger, and this was no exception. When pressed for comment, Picky uttered only this undeniable truth between gargantuan mouthfuls: “It’s a burger.”
For desert, we sampled New York brewery Ommegang’s Three Philosopher’s quadruple ale. Brewed in the style of a Trappist ale but blended with a small portion of a cherry-conditioned Belgian Lambic, this brew is very malty and rich, with a bit of balanced sweetness. It’s definitely a Big Beer at 9.8 percent alcohol content, so we split one bottle between us. Yum.
The Bier Garden has made some changes, and good ones at that. The service remains high-quality, and perhaps it has even gotten better. Our waitress was uncommonly attentive and not a bit flustered by the fairly large crowd she was tending to. The menu has grown up a bit with some fine additions, and most likely that will draw some attention from a crowd that the Bier Garden may have had a harder time reaching before. For my part, I’ll continue to go for the reasons I always have – beer, burgers (and maybe some of that good hummus), football and the oddly satisfying pleasure of being able to yell in public and not feel too out of place.