No-Flub Grub

Some deserving pub for the Pub on Lee.

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The Pub on Lee 2191 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights Dinner, 4:30 to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; until midnight on Friday and Saturday. Bar remains open later


Appetizing eats and cold drafts in January -- two - welcome sights at the Pub. - Walter  Novak
Appetizing eats and cold drafts in January -- two welcome sights at the Pub.
Ah, the friendly neighborhood pub: A spot where the vibe is relaxed, the staffers are friendly, and the dress code is nonexistent . . . Where the food is good, the bartender is generous, the prices are modest, and the wait for a table is never too long. In other words, the perfect dinner-and-drinks joint for these long nights of post-holiday depression and indigestion.

Lest you think such places exist only on TV, listen up: The Pub on Lee is an all-American solution for those times when getting dressed up and tackling rarefied foods with fancy foreign names is more than your overburdened little system can bear.

About as frou-frou as it gets here is the steaming after-dinner mug of Pub Coffee, a giggle-inducing blend of Tia Maria, Bailey's, Kahlua, Frangelico, Grand Marnier, and a splash of strong coffee. The liqueurs are restrained beneath a towering froth of whipped cream, yet they retain the firepower to shake up every chilly capillary in a winter-weary body.

Still, most of our compatriots seemed content to quaff cold brews (Harp, Guinness, Labatt's Blue Light, and Bass on tap, and just about anything you've ever heard of in bottles) or to warm themselves over cheery Cosmopolitans or retro Bacardi Cocktails. No doubt these are the same hardy souls we see tromping through the snow sans parkas or carrying out the skeletal remains of their Christmas trees, clad only in their thin white skivvies.

Or perhaps they just hoped to save themselves for the comforting fare, much of which is made from scratch by cook Julie Kroezer. In her spotless white chef's jacket, she rules the pub's tiny kitchen with wisdom and serenity, stirring pots of homemade soup, assembling rustic charbroiled sandwiches, and turning out a chunky, perfectly balanced marinara that is as soothing as the nights are long.

On one blustery eve, Kroezer's piping hot chicken vegetable soup hit all the right notes. Crammed with chunks of tender chicken breast and a medley of toothsome carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, and chewy little "sinkers" (a homey flour dumpling), the meaty broth was a sure cure for what ailed us. Another night, we soothed our souls with a decidedly Midwestern take on chicken fajitas: lots of white meat and a collection of tender-crisp red and green pepper, onion, and mushroom slices ready to roll into warm flour tortillas. Veggies and chicken had been napped in a translucent sauce, which was judiciously seasoned with salt and rich natural flavors; in fact, the only vaguely south-of-the-border accent came from little sides of unremarkable guacamole, red salsa, and sour cream. But our companion, a spicy fellow with a yen for chili peppers, stunned us by declaring he loved the admittedly unfiery dish. "It is," he rightly noted, "just like what Mom would make for a pack of picky children." (In fact, we wouldn't be surprised if the same chicken-vegetable-and-sauce mixture gets put to use in the suspiciously similar-sounding chicken stir-fry, perhaps with a shake of soy sauce. There's an old "mother trick" if ever there was one.

Then there were the delightfully messy chicken wings. Gregarious Ashley the Bartender warned us off the "Hot! Pub Sauce" version, so we opted for a platter of Cajun-as-interpreted-by-Mother-style wings, in a thin, sweet, mildly peppery sauce that ran in little rivulets past our smiling lips. No smoke, no fire, just a nice little pot of good-quality blue-cheese dressing and some crisp celery sticks to round out the pleasant nosh.

If you are beginning to sense a theme here, your subliminal antennae are finely tuned. Yes, the kitchen seems to have a thing about chicken. Besides the wings, the fajitas, the stir-fry, and the soups, there's a chicken quesadilla, chicken Dijon, grilled chicken breast over rice pilaf, and 10 different charbroiled chicken sandwiches. Chicken appears again in almost half the pasta dishes and serves as an option in the nachos, a meal-sized baked spud, and the Pub Salad: a crisp, predictable toss of head and leaf lettuces, shredded carrot, sliced radish, and pale hothouse tomato. (Acting on a tip from an alert reader, however, we asked the kitchen to top the salad with shredded mozzarella and throw on, not chicken, but the fried shrimp appetizer: crunchy bits of mostly shrimp-flavored breading that added fresh crouton-like warmth and crunch. The resulting Salad à la Rick should become part of the regular menu, we humbly suggest.)

No steaks (except as specials), no chops, one veal Parmesan, and several fried fish options, but besides the poultry, the pub does serve up some fine, thick eight-ounce hamburgers with toppings that range from Thousand Island dressing to bacon and honey-mustard sauce. We went for the Pub Melt: a deliciously gooey stack-up of grilled onions and mushrooms, guacamole, cheese, lettuce, and tomato on sliced pumpernickel, served with a fat dill pickle and a tangle of good-quality curly fries. Our only concern was that the burger arrived still pink, rather than the darker shade of medium-well that we had requested.

And the pub does ribs -- succulent little morsels of roasted beef, finished on the grill and doused in a fragrant honey-and-brown-sugar-spiked sauce -- so tender, greaseless, and well-trimmed that the meat truly falls off the bone. What a welcome change of pace from the gristly, fatty, undercooked little numbers that some local eateries try to pass off.

Among the pastas, three large shells stuffed with a blend of ricotta and chopped spinach, and sauced with a chunky, freshly made marinara made a tasty vegetarian alternative. The aptly named Florentini, as well as many of the other entrées, comes with the basic Pub Salad and a slab of warm homemade flat bread, sided with little aluminum-foil wrapped pats of real butter.

Our choice for dessert would most definitely be the Pub Coffee. But for the designated drivers among your own little posse, the pub also serves a basic ice cream sundae and several of the familiar commercial sweeties, like Snickers and Reese's pies and a passable warm Caramel Apple Pie, doused with ice cream and lots of little whipped cream florets.

Beyond the homey food, it's worth noting that the pub is a tidy spot, particularly when measured against most casual-dining standards. The glossy oak bar-top gleams in the dim light. The requisite salt-and-pepper shakers and ketchup bottle are free of crumbs and dried debris. Plenty of paper napkins and Wet Ones arrive with the ribs and the wings. Spills are wiped up promptly, and soiled plates never linger. Even the restrooms are clean enough that you don't feel the need to wash up after using them to wash up!

No, this isn't the spot where everybody knows your name . . . although we bet most of them would if you showed up more than twice. But with its familiar charm and simple, well-prepared foods, the Pub on Lee is the kind of relaxing neighborhood hangout we love to find.

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