I get paid to eat, not drink. But the holiday season is full of such pressures. Deck the halls. Be jolly. Be naughty. Be nice. It's enough to drive anyone to the nearest microbrewery to quaff a few.
Wait a minute. Did I say "microbrewery"? Somebody, please, call William Safire. I've fallen prey to dated slang and I can't get up.
Like "junk bonds," "microbrewery" is a buzz word that has come to symbolize the spirit of the Eighties. In fact, for a while it seemed the two were inextricably linked: Many of the same young men who made killings buying, selling or handling junk bonds also harbored secret dreams of opening microbreweries. Some of them succeeded. Some of them are in jail.
At any rate, brewed-on-the-premises beer sounds like a quick way to acquire the proper level of holiday gaiety. Both Hops Restaurant Brewery and Barley's Brew Pub are conveniently located near very nice malls. I vow to shop till I drop, then imbibe draught after draught until the thought of Santa's knowing when I'm asleep and when I'm awake no longer bothers me.
Or something like that.
My first visit to Hops Restaurant Brewery takes place on a Sunday afternoon. My dining accomplice and I have attended a movie at Harkins Camelview. Later, after lunch, we will enter Scottsdale Fashion Square, where we will touch everything in The Nature Company and The Museum Company. We will emerge laden with packages.
But, I digress.
As the day is sunny, we ask to be seated outside in the courtyard. We're told the waiter handling the area is too busy. "I won't be able to seat you outside for several minutes," warns the young hostess. We opt instead for inside seating.
We consult the menu. Hops seems eager to overcome its early reputation for mediocre food. Chef Russell Hodges was brought in late in the summer to revitalize the kitchen at the almost-year-old restaurant. Hodges has spent time at the highly praised Routh Street Cafe and the Crescent Court in Dallas. We are eager to sample his cooking.
There is a palpable "city" feel to Hops, thanks in large part to a pseudo-industrial design featuring exposed concrete, black modern chairs and a teal high-tech ceiling. Over the sound system, Roxy Music's Avalon sounds suspiciously current, though it is nearly ten years old. The people seated around us are well-dressed. Women wear fuzzy fur-blend sweaters with sequined designs. Men look weekend casual, pleased to be free of neckties. Hops' waiters all seem stamped from Ken Olin and Johnny Depp cookie molds.
My accomplice is not a drinker. When a tall glass of Pilsner beer is placed in front of me, he takes a sniff or two for old times' sake. "Smells like Miller," says he. Yeah, kind of. Thankfully, Hops' sweet beer has a lot more character.
"Would you like some breadsticks?" a bus boy inquires. Certainly, we respond. He brings us three generous-size, sesame-studded sticks of bread and some dipping sauce. The bread without the garlic-lime sauce is dull, but with it, quite tasty. No butter is offered on this or my subsequent visit.
The lunch menu consists of starters, pizzas cooked in a wood-burning oven, salads, sandwiches, burgers and some pasta dishes. Dinner repeats much of the same, and adds more substantial entrees. Desserts are identical at both meals.
Over the course of two visits, I sample several appetizers. The best is the tortilla-crusted shrimp with black bean cake, though we receive only three shrimp. The worst is the boring grilled chicken and beef kebabs served with a too-salty peanut sauce.
A zebra-striped puree of black beans and sour cream tastes more of red chile than black beans. While I enjoy the soup's attractive presentation and its spicy kick, I miss the rich flavor of the beans.
Fried calamari with lemon, basil and two dipping sauces are also disappointing. The calamari are underdone and chewy. I like the tart red, marinaralike sauce, but a white sauce reminds me too much of tartar sauce to make a favorable impression.
In keeping with the season, the restaurant is decked with boughs of holly. As we eat, we watch the staff erects a real Christmas tree. The process goes smoothly and without the inevitable displays of rage I've witnessed at Christmases past in private homes.
Hops' menu contains a disclaimer stating that pizzas will be brought when they are ready. Luckily, our spicy chicken pizza is delivered at the same time as our other entree, a seasonal vegetable platter with linguini and pumpkin paella. The pizza must be eaten with fork and knife. Its lovely crust maintains its crispness, despite an ample topping of sweet plum tomatoes, cheese, tender chunks of chicken and hot, fresh chiles. The music shifts to the dreaded Sting. The Eighties live at Hops.
Linguini with seasonal vegetables is the least objectionable version I've seen in some time. (Has a good pasta primavera become my Holy Grail?) Plain linguini occupies the center of the plate--a positive step in the right direction. Encircling it, three mounds of vegetable melange alternate with ball-shaped scoops of gummy, pumpkin-flavored rice. I do not like this so-called paella. It is dull and pointless. I like the vegetables, but would like them more if they weren't so finely chopped and mixed together in ratatouille fashion. I am thankful they are crisp and appear to still have some vitamin content.
A wood-burning pizza oven and rotisserie are openly displayed at Hops. The pizza chef who has started his shift is not a happy camper. He rails to another staff member that his ingredients have not been replenished. "I'm out of everything," he says angrily, "and I'm about ready to walk out. This has happened for three days straight." It is a surprising display of temper for a restaurant so seemingly under control. "I'm really fed up with the whole thing," the pizza chef mutters in disgust.
It is no wonder. After a slow summer, Hops is hopping. When I return for dinner a few nights later, a different accomplice and I must wait for a table despite our reservation. That's okay. We have a lot to catch up on and several beers to taste. We adjourn to the bar where I sample a dark chocolate-almond holiday beer. Yuck. It tastes like a combination of Coca-Cola, beer and cheap amaretto. I like the wheat and amber ales better, though both start out strong and finish weak. The amber lacks the final kick of, say, Bass Ale.
By the time we are seated, the kitchen is out of spit-roasted lamb--the one dish I am most eager to try. In its place, we order the barbecued medallions of beef and grilled salmon with "Oriental stir fry."
Of the two, I prefer the beef. Two butter-knife tender filets rest on a bed of delicious red chili. Ham-and-butter-flavored pintos are contained in a small, blue tortilla shell. Another tortilla shell holds cole slaw. A dollop of salsa and a grilled corn cake spiked with serrano chile round out the plate. Everything tastes as good as it looks.
The salmon dish just doesn't grab me. The stir fry looks suspiciously like the vegetable melange that came with my lunchtime linguini, except that these finely cut legumes are julienned. I can't taste the curry sauce that supposedly flavors the salmon. Salty soy sauce overwhelms all other seasonings, save fresh ginger. The weekday evening throng at Hops glitters with the same affluence as the midday weekend crowd. Men outnumber women. This night the group has a distinctive postwork feel to it. Ties and suspenders can be spotted. The same soundtrack underscores the scene: Bryan Ferry and Sting.
Dessert is not a big feature of dining here. Three items are offered. Of these, I favor the chocolate-chip-cookie pie with its crisp cookie texture. A creme brulee tart is too liquid on one occasion, but closer to the mark on the second. My least favorite sweet is the dry-biscuited strawberry shortcake, which emphasizes quantity at the cost of aesthetics. Though I experience some near-hits and outright misses, there's no doubt that a creative mind is at work in the kitchen. Once the Hops menu wholly reflects Chef Hodges' talent, I think we may see some exciting food.
Barley's Brew Pub makes no attempt to be a fine eatery. It is a microbrewery that also happens to serve food. The restaurant has one menu, served all day, focusing on finger food, sandwiches, burgers, pizza and salads. In a word, the same stuff that has dominated bar menus for at least three decades.
Chances are, you've seen it all before.
A dining accomplice and I stop in one cold, wet evening. Barley's flagstone floor and warm pub atmosphere provide the perfect respite from the dark December gloom outside.
Our waitress is excellent. She doesn't even blink when I order a sampler of pale ale, amber and stout, and my accomplice orders a root beer. As at Hops, I favor the pale ale. Again, the stout and amber start strong, taste watered down in the middle, then fall apart at the end. That final kick is missing.
It is fair to say I don't expect much from the food here--just on the basis of the menu alone. Fortunately, I am pleasantly surprised by a couple of items. A small pepperoni and jalapeno pizza is very good. Credit Barley's secret beer dough recipe for achieving the rare and impossible: a crust that is airy and crisp at the same time. I am dazzled when our pizza is peppered with fresh chile slices. I would eagerly order pizza here again.
Barley's tortilla soup is also pretty good. Hearty and hot, the mildly spiced soup is full of tomato, rice and a rich chili flavor. Tortilla strips add a pleasant crunchy texture.
The postwork, premovie crowd is much in evidence here. Men are the main clientele. Two couples sit outside under a canopy and watch traffic creep along Camelback Road. A standing heater warms them.
The tossed salad that comes with the chicken piccata entree is better than it has to be. So is the chicken piccata. Two boneless chicken breasts rest atop a pile of buttery linguini. Barley's isn't chintzy with the capers and the lemon is freshly squeezed--a lemon pit bears witness.
The pub club sandwich is adequate. It doesn't overwhelm me, but then, it's been a long time since any club sandwich did that. I regret the inclusion of American cheese and too-sweet bacon. However, the salty-sweet waffle fries that come with all sandwiches and burgers really hit the spot. Maybe it's the weather.
As at Hops, dessert at Barley's is an afterthought. Perhaps after a few fresh-brewed draughts, customers rarely request it. I don't know. All I know is not to bother with dessert next time. Again, it's been a long time since the thought of a chocolate sundae or piece of apple or cherry pie thrilled me. Like, since I was ten years old?
Let's face it. The primary focus for any establishment housing a microbrewery is beer, not food. Barley's is probably smart to acknowledge this up-front with its timeless, all-purpose, bar-eats menu. I'm not saying the food is terrible. It's just secondary.
Hops Restaurant Brewery, Scottsdale Fashion Square, 7000 East Camelback, Scottsdale, 945-4677. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., seven days a week; Dinner, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.
Barley's Brew Pub, Town & Country Shopping Center, 4883 North 20th Street, Phoenix, 468-0403. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
Like "junk bonds," "microbrewery" is a buzz word that has come to symbolize the spirit of the Eighties.
hops Hops seems eager to overcome its early reputation for mediocre food.
I'm not saying the food is terrible. It's just secondary.
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