Sunday, March 29, 2015

Restaurant Review: Ale Mary

Maybe it's Downtown Royal Oak thing. . . 

It was good, but not that good - we are going to call it "Pale Mary's"

Any time a new restaurant opens up in Downtown Royal Oak, I'm enthusiastic. After all it's a short walk from our home and I am always looking for a new destination that is local. We enjoy riding bikes and it's always better if there's a cocktail or snack at the end of the journey. We will try just about anything that is local and give it a chance. Honestly, in the summer, we will conduct a trade off giving up some expectations for the food to have the opportunity to walk or bike ride somewhere to have a meal sitting outside.

The reality is that a restaurant in our local area does not have to be all that wonderful because the reality is that if there is a restaurant they will be busy and overflowing without necessarily having the best caliber for food. This is going to be controversial to say but for years we have had mediocre Mexican and I would rather drive outside of our city limits to go get an enchilada or a Margareta. The same can be said for Thai food - since my favorite changed name and ownership, I am driving for carry out in the city proper, but not to the downtown area. If you visit downtown on any night the restaurants are crowded so there's really no need to kick it up a notch. There are of course a few restaurants that are just doing it right and that we enjoy but often we are left with mediocre meals.

Ale Mary's has been open for a short time and everyone that I know has been raving about it. I'm left trying to figure out if it's good because it's all relative downtown, or if I'm missing something. Now that being said, nothing was bad. Everything was okay. Maybe my expectations were just too high because of all the buzz. And there is a lot of buzz. The Detroit Free Press ranked them as one of the Top 10 New Restaurants for 2015. Is is just me?

The decor is really cool and funky. There is a wall tiled with beer bottle caps right when you walk in and there are light fixtures over the tables and benches made with vintage light bulbs and old beer tap handles. We got there at about 5 on a Saturday night, in hopes of beating any crowd, and had a 45 minute wait for two people. As we walked around and checked back in, that was fine but I saw folks with larger parties told it would be about an hour and half and we watched many people just turn around and leave. When that is the case, what does the food really matter?

I started with a  2 Wheeler, a witbier from the Original Gravity Brewing Company in Milan. It was good beer. There is no denying that if you like beer this is a place to come for drinking it. There is a wide variety of offerings that will please just about any beer palate. Because this is really an offshoot of Tom's Oyster Bar, I watched a woman with a two hour wait, go through a hallway to visit there as she wanted wine instead. If you don't drink beer, you still have options.

I should also note that the staff here is wonderful. They are friendly, fun and attentive. They are very educated on the beers on tap and are there to help a patron like myself make some sound decisions on what to drink. That counts for a lot.

We tried a few different small plates and appetizers to start. There was the "Best Cornbread Ever" with fresh corn and cinnamon butter, the Beer Glazed Pork Belly described as a confit of pork belly roasted Yukon Gold potatoes and Brussels sprouts, and the Gouda Ale Soup with smoked Gouda, beer cheese and bacon lardons.

The cornbread was a really mild cornbread with a hint of cinnamon that wasn't really bold. The texture was more like a cake than a hearty bread that I am used to but it was good. I would have liked a little more butter and a little more spice.

I had heard a lot about this soup. I was looking forward to this soup. After all, how do you go wrong with cheese and beer? The first bite was rather good with the creaminess of the soup and the cheese. . . but then you get a kick with the beer and it's not a spicy kick. It's bitter. The beer just overwhelms any of the other flavors so you are eating creamy beer flavored liquid. It's just too much. Yes, I know it's a beer hall and they feature beers but I don't think the beer should be the only flavor in a soup.

The pork belly. . . I should start with the claim that I love pork belly. I don't like it, I love it and I look for it wherever we go. If you want really super good pork belly I highly recommend One Eyed Betty's, a restaurant that also features a lot of beer but makes superb pork belly in a dish called "Bacon with a side of Bacon". I also like to make pork belly and have my own recipe for Braised Pork Belly with Cherry Cola and Hoisin BBQ Sauce. I really think pork belly is better than bacon, and meat candy.  So all that being said I had high hopes for this pork belly. Combining it with potatoes and Brussels is rather brilliant too. But the pork belly itself was just okay. The texture was good but the flavor was not. I ended up scraping off the gravy which I would describe as "congealed beer" rather than any other flavors. It needed something more. . .

For main dishes we chose an order of Four Seasons Fish and Chips and a Beer Cheese Burger. The Fish and Chips were good but not great. In talking it over we decided that they weren't any better than anywhere else locally and we could think of a couple of places where they are far superior, including Sweet Lorraine's. I do have to say that the coleslaw was quite good if we are going to go through every item.

The Beer Cheese Burger was a disappointment. I ordered it rare and it came on a brioche bun with applewood smoked bacon, Final Absolution beer cheese , spring mix, pickled red onions and roasted tomato. Again the beer flavor was overpowering and it quickly destroyed any chance of hold that bun as it disintegrated. Once I started to eat just the patty I found one without much flavor.

Now if there is one thing to come back there for in addition to beer, it's the fries. The fries are wonderful. They are fried in duck fat and they are really really good. The texture is beyond a regular fry as there is an extra crisp.

Summary? If you want to drink, yes this is the place to go. If you want to eat you may want to think twice unless beer flavor is what you are craving in everything you order. Beer to me is an accompaniment, not a flavor to use instead of complex offerings with spices and undertones. The food is not bad but it's not great and I want great food. We decided this place will be known as "Pale Mary's" in our house.

Will my review matter? No. People will go there in droves and say it's wonderful. Maybe it is me.

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