"People want to go somewhere new and eat the same old food," my father wisely surmised while dining at Lager & Vine in Hudson.
That sage and pithy observation came just a few moments after we all glanced at the menus, trying to decide who would order which dishes. It wasn't that nothing sounded good; it was that nothing sounded exciting. And that's troubling considering that Lager & Vine bills itself as a gastropub — which by most diners' definition is a place where trendsetting food and drink collide.
Though it might be many a diner's definition, it isn't necessarily the owner's. During a phone call in the weeks prior to opening, proprietor Cliff Cravens told me, "the gastropub label has less to do with the food than it does with the beer and wine selection and the atmosphere."
Since he brought it up, I would also point out that Lager & Vine's beer list is anything but cutting edge. There are only a half-dozen beers on tap, and two of those are reserved for Leinenkugel and Yuengling — hardly a bonanza for beer geeks. All told, there are 30-some beers, five of which are light and the rest ranging from good to great.
Cravens does deserve kudos for being one of the first restaurateurs in Ohio to carry wines on tap, a brilliant system that is at once environmentally kind (no glass bottles and reduced shipping weight) and practical (the wine is dispensed by nitrogen, which prevents spoilage). Lager offers four premium wines by the glass at great prices: Napa cabernet and chardonnay are just $6 each, and Oregon pinot gris and pinot noir are just $6.75 and $7.75, respectively. The reds arrive at the table a bit chilly, but they temper quickly. There are plenty of other fine wines by the glass and bottle.
Lager's food menu is a predictable pool of crowd-pleasing chestnuts like house-fried chips, flatbreads, tacos, burgers, mac & cheese, and seafood pasta. The menu-by-committee approach makes it easy for diners to design a meal — but rarely thrilling to do so.
Like fingers gliding across a Ouija board, we instinctively settled on blue-cheese-and-bacon-topped potato chips, soft-baked pretzels with mustard dipping sauce, and grilled chicken skewers. We enjoyed all but the skewers, which were plain chicken tenders on a stick with a thick, sweet glaze. The table also shared a flatbread — in our case a tomato-basil version — that was indeed flat, but also floppy, oily, and roundly unpopular.
Entrées too were a bit of a mixed bag. Lager & Vine's double-bone pork chop stopped me in my tracks it was so good. Thick as a Bible and beautifully cooked — from the charred bourbon-glazed exterior to the moist, medium center — this dish alone is worth a return visit. That was not the verdict in the case of The Table vs. Yin Yang Shrimp, a dull dish of skewered-and-grilled shrimp served atop a puddle of gooey risotto.
Additional garlic, lemon, and parsley would have greatly benefitted the Shrimp & Scallop Scampi — a butter pool populated by good-quality seafood. In the case of the Country Club grilled cheese (we're in Hudson, after all), it was the unripe, white-cored tomato and flavorless American cheese that left us yawning.
Most entrées come with something from the usual lineup of roasted spuds, redskin mashers, sautéed veggie medley, and grilled asparagus.
Cravens, a former operating partner for Fleming's Prime Steakhouse, managed to undo a half-century of age, wear, and rust from the old Reserve Inn space. The décor has been updated with crisp wood floors, walls clad in weathered barn siding, and tables topped in brown craft paper, giving the restaurant a masculine, clubby feel.
"I want you to feel comfortable coming in to grab a bite with your girlfriend, or just coming off the golf course with your buddies," says Cravens. That's great for golfers. For culinary adventure-seekers, maybe not so much.