That was in late September, just a few weeks after the Flats eatery -- the former site of a Boston-based John Harvard's Brew House -- had reopened with a new name and under the direction of property owner and local developer Bart Wolstein. John Harvard's had pulled the plug on its operation in July, citing the eatery's poor performance. But even with cold weather on its way, which typically sends Flats business into hibernation, Wolstein moved ahead with his plans to revive the operation.
Business didn't exactly boom during the winter, but most of the staff has hung on. And now that the spring thaw is upon us, Wolstein and company are hoping to broaden the restaurant's appeal and begin drawing in a more stable, all-season crowd of well-off adults, many of whom are already opening doors -- and their wallets -- not a mile away in the bustling Warehouse District. It's a laudable goal, and one shared by a number of other Flats business owners. But despite some recent menu changes (that yummy pork chop having been packed away for another day) and the best of intentions, it seems that both the food and service at House of Brews have a way to go before they can take on the heavyweights at the top of the hill.
Not that the casual dining space isn't welcoming and attractive. From the moment guests walk in the door of the old brick building on the east bank of the Cuyahoga River to the moment they depart, hosts and managers are visible presences, quick with warm greetings or cheerful "goodnight"s. The three large, carpeted dining rooms hold sturdy, judiciously spaced wooden tables and booths, and are tastefully decorated with garlands of hops, sheaves of golden wheat, and a few homey antiques. Exposed brick walls, dark woodwork, and some interesting architectural details (check out the table for six, snuggled into a cozy brick alcove at the rear of the restaurant, which the staff refers to as "the pizza oven"), help give the place a comforting, timeless atmosphere. A separate pub holds the large bar, plenty of television sets, video games, and two pool tables that share a great view of the action on Old River Road below. Recorded classic rock and oldies provide the soundtrack for daily dining; live entertainment rocks the house on weekend evenings.
Brewmaster Joe Marunowski's gleaming brewing tanks also add a sculptural touch to the decor while providing a selection of well-made beers; we are especially fond of the 16-ounce draughts of Standard Pils, a golden brew with a light malt body and an herbal hops character similar to European lagers, and Hamilton's American Ale, a pale ale that compares favorably to any in the city. Besides the homemade brews, the bar carries about 60 bottled beers from around the world, as well as the standard selection of wine and mixed drinks. Daily happy hours and promotional specials help keep drink prices reasonable.
Chef Frank Zingale's current menu contains a vaguely schizoid variety of modestly priced appetizers, salads, sandwiches, and entrées, with choices ranging from a classy-sounding Fresh Cod With Crabmeat and Sautéed Spinach to such ubiquitous pub snacks as Pepperjack Nachos, Buffalo Chicken Wings, and Beer-Battered Fish & Chips. The fact that, in general, the kitchen does better with the simpler fare than with the more ambitious items just reinforces the notion that the restaurant is struggling for a culinary identity.
Among the appetizers, a platter of five large, boneless Buffalo Chicken Strips, along with a plastic cupful of mild blue cheese dressing and two celery sticks, was a good starter. While the chicken was a bit dry, its buttery sauce and the creamy dip made up for it, and the zippy flavor was just right with a brew. Likewise, a large Four-Cheese Quesadilla topped with guacamole, tomato salsa, sour cream, and a sprinkling of green onions, was a fine choice for bar food.
Less impressive were two of the more highfalutin appetizers. Rather than the usual sturdy grilled bread brushed with olive oil and loaded with chopped tomatoes, garlic, and olives, the kitchen's version of bruschetta consisted of 10 thin, dry slices of toasted French baguette (really more like croutons) and three piles of finely chopped toppings: marinated tomato, black olives, and sinfully bitter garlic. The toppings weren't bad-tasting after we mixed them all together, but, piled onto the crunchy, cracker-like bread, the resulting appetizer was nothing to write home about, either. Also a letdown was a huge bowl of lightly breaded and fried calamari rings, on a bed of thick tomato sauce sprinkled with scallions and pieces of pickled banana pepper. While the dish was pretty to look at and had a pleasantly zesty taste, it quickly proved to contain some rubbery rings that were absolutely impervious to the actions of the human tooth.
While lunch service has been friendly and attentive, our server for one Saturday night visit had us wringing our hands. The apparently inexperienced fellow neglected to bring bread (a warm, herby focaccia, as we discovered on subsequent trips), inform us of specials, replace used flatware, or refill our coffee cups. Our soups and salads came before we had scarcely begun our appetizers; he was back with entrées before we had finished our salads. When I requested a wedge of lemon to squeeze over a fish dish, he showed up with a thin slice of fruit, dangling from a toothpick, from the bar. Interestingly, however, he knew enough to pop up at regular intervals to see if we wanted more beer!
Among the entrées, homey Roasted Pork Tenderloin with Chive Spaetzle and Asparagus was nearly as good as we had hoped it would be. The two thick tenderloins were juicy and succulent enough to cut with a spoon, and floated on a bed of delicate, buttery spaetzle, ringed with a wonderful sweet-and-savory reduction sauce. The dish would have been even more appealing if some attention had been paid to presentation. As it was, the two pork pieces were plopped down on top of the spaetzle like something from the school cafeteria, and the scattering of fibrous chopped asparagus stalks added little merit to the dish.
Chicken and Mushrooms in Puff Pastry was also tasty, with a fat, golden pastry embracing a flavorful filling of chopped onions, mushrooms, and a bit of sliced chicken, served on a bed of moist wild and white rice blended with orzo and herbs. A delicious, creamy Marsala wine sauce helped pull the flavors together. While long, slender stalks of asparagus would have been a colorful and classy touch, again the kitchen went with pieces of chopped asparagus stems, this time throwing in a few tender tips for good measure.
Humble Classic Grilled Meatloaf, too, had its ups and downs. The sturdy slice of ground meat brushed with a sweet-and-spicy chipotle barbecue sauce was tender and flavorful, and a portion of well-made garlic mashed potatoes was satisfying. However, a generous serving of extremely mature green beans was predictably tough, and three fat beer-battered onion rings piled on top were notably oil-logged. And again, eye-appeal seemed to have been overlooked: Beans, meat, and potatoes were all settled in their separate corners of the plate, and -- just like in the hospital cafeteria -- a puddle of brown gravy shimmered from a crater in the center of the mashed potatoes.
Most disappointing was the upscale seafood dish, Fresh Cod With Crabmeat and Sautéed Spinach on a blend of rice and orzo, which proved to be one of the blandest mélanges of foodstuffs we've come across yet. While not overdone, the thick filet of white fish was flavorless, although it perked up a bit when we sprinkled it with salt and pepper and a few drops of juice from that aforementioned lemon slice. There was plenty of crabmeat on top of the fish, but its soggy texture and dull, fishy taste, as well as the presence of pieces of shell, left us cold. A few satiny leaves of bright green sautéed spinach and a touch of lemony beurre blanc were welcome rays of brightness, both in terms of flavor and appearance, but weren't enough to rescue the other components.
Housemade desserts have also been a mixed bag. Both Warm Cherry Cobbler and Old-Fashioned Deep Dish Apple Crisp were little more than bowls of pie filling flecked with a few crumbs of topping and a scoop of ice cream. One-note wonders, the sweets were too boring to finish. A solid wedge of New-York style cheesecake was better, with a creamy texture and not-too-sweet flavor. Best of the lot was an enormous Brownie Ice Cream Dream: two large, warm, fudgy brownies topped with three scoops of vanilla-bean ice cream, whipped cream, and housemade stout fudge sauce, a dish that my strapping male companion declared the best part of the meal.
On the whole, however, House of Brews presently seems to be of two conflicting minds: Too grown up for the youthful bar-hoppers but too uneven for the serious foodies, its current offerings seem unlikely to completely satisfy anyone. I hope that the hardworking management will eventually settle on a single identity -- casual upscale eatery or simple brewpub and bar -- and throw its considerable resources at doing that one thing and doing it well.
Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at [email protected].