I must admit that when I enter a new restaurant and I’m surrounded by 12 more-than-60-inch big-screen televisions, my expectations for the quality of the food are not that high. When you’re visually assaulted by a melange of sports in pulse-pounding HDTV, what usually follows are generic nachos, wings and mozzarella sticks. If you’re lucky, craft beer is an option instead of Coors Light or PBR. The “dining” experience is as much about the communal cheering for ’Noles or Gators as it is about what will provide sustenance.
New England’s Ale House Grille in Palm Harbor turns out to be a nice exception. There’s attention to detail that’s usually lacking at similar establishments. And much to my delight, in addition to 30 local brews on tap, the Ale House offers flights featuring three sample-size servings of beers on draft. We choose Big Storm Wavemaker Amber Ale, Cigar City Jai Alai IPA and St. Pete Orange Wheat. It’s a marvelous chance to explore the hop-filled bounty from the region’s master brewers. The Ale House already has a following, demonstrated by the 250 members of the mug club, whose numbered 21-ounce mugs hang in an impressive array over the bar. You get to use your mug each time you come in, and you only pay for a pint; 5 ounces are on the house.
The appetizers catch our table off guard. The smoked fish spread is a combo of Gulf amberjack and wild-caught mahi mahi. It’s delicious and served with assorted crackers, a lemon wedge, some sliced grape tomatoes, fresh greens and your own Lilliputian 1/8-ounce bottle Tabasco sauce (a nice touch).
Because I’m traveling around the Bay area for a future profile on pizza, we jump at the margherita flatbread special. Despite the fact that the fresh tomato slices are buried in oozing cheese, the crust remains crispy. I could use a bit more of the fresh basil chiffonade, but given that some specialty pizza places have no fresh basil, the Ale House gets a gold star.
Wisely, they focus the burger menu on a “build-your-own” strategy, eschewing composed combos and letting you choose from five cheeses and eight toppings. Every day, the chef also offers a burger of the day. Our superb turkey burger special comes with stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce and can only be described as delightful.
As a grill with New England roots, the Ale House offers diners two lobster rolls — cold Maine-style and warm Connecticut-style on authentic split-top buns. We opt to go warm, which means a pile of coral Maine lobster nuggets tossed in warm butter and served with a lemon wedge, allowing the lobster to sing.
Grilled cheese with applewood-smoked bacon combines Monterey Jack, shredded cheddar and American cheeses on perfectly caramelized wheat bread. It’s a dreamy version of this perennial favorite comfort food. The accompanying cup of tomato basil soup tastes of canned purée, so it can’t really recover. The grilled cheese is so good, however, I’m willing to forgive.
Fish and chips delivers a brilliant crispy dredged white fish fillet with house-made tartar sauce, but the fresh-cut fries are overly salty and in need of potato Viagra. The flavor is there, but given the attention to detail in the other courses, the fries are disappointing. Longtime readers know of my earlier rants about fries. They simply need to be fried to order; if you cut corners and try to do them ahead, what arrives at the table is limp and disappointing.
The dessert menu is inspired. Gone are the expected key lime pie and cheesecake. Instead, there’s a homemade whoopie pie and, in an exciting coup d’kitchen, desserts served piping hot tableside in 6-inch cast-iron skillets. Apple Brown Betty with early American-style warm, sweet cinnamon-spiced apples on a flaky crust is topped with crumbled strudel, caramel sauce, crème Anglaise, a generous scoop of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and whipped cream.
There are also skillet versions of America’s favorite cookie, the Toll House recipe created in 1930 in Whitman, Massachusetts. The fresh-baked semi-sweet chocolate chip cookie with stout beer, ice cream and chocolate ganache is scrumptious. But my favorite is the oatmeal-raisin special that’s off the menu. I highly recommend you include one of these terrific skillets when you visit. You can’t go wrong.
New England’s Ale House Grille is a reminder not to judge a book by its cover — a pleasant demonstration of how clever chefs can elevate normally generic cuisine.