Sentimentality is a brutal state of consciousness. This is silly, but it's for real. For years I've dreamed of a stained-glass window I owned in my early 20s. It is no longer in my possession but it was strikingly beautiful — etched and painted with vines and flowers bordered by colored glass.
In my dreams, I'm always looking through the window. The effect is not like wearing rose-colored glasses, but a kind of bittersweet and compassionate look back to my own youth.
I bought the window at the Wrecking Bar on Moreland Avenue in the 1970s. Located in a former home constructed in 1900, it had become the city's main seller of architectural antiques. These were the days when Inman Park had begun its transformation from a seedy neighborhood of boarding houses and apartments back to its original grandeur. I assume the Wrecking Bar existed as part of that movement.
You can understand, then, why last month's opening of the Wrecking Bar Brewpub (292 Moreland Ave., 404-221-2600) threatened an attack of sentimentality, as I'm sure it has many other people. The building's exterior has been lovingly, invitingly restored. The main floor, a special-events facility, is not complete but I'm sure it will be impressive.
The brewpub itself is located in the basement of the building. Of course, my nostalgic reverie of the creaky, chaotic, dark interior of the building was pretty effectively shattered as soon as I heard the din of a restaurant crowd. Present-day reality is cruel.
Owners Bob and Kristine Sandage obviously have worked hard to create a comfortable restaurant in an uncooperative space of heavy stone walls that can feel a bit claustrophobic. There's a lot of wood everywhere, including a bar that is virtually hidden from much of the dining room.
"It reminds me of eating in the basement of a castle in Europe somewhere," Wayne said.
"Are you talking about a dungeon?" I responded.
Maybe if I drank I would have enjoyed my experience there more. This is, after all, a bar where you can get wrecked. Our great server, Ben, brought Wayne a sampler of five beers brewed there. He most liked the Victor IPA while our friend Lulu, a foodie at a nearby table, thought the Golden Nelson Ale was best. They both agreed that the Belgian WIT was the least palatable.
The food? Here are three words: white truffle oil. As we walked to our table, its odor suffocated me. I did not consider this a good sign. Maybe white truffle oil was, once upon a time, the Chanel No. 5 of New American cuisine. But, often synthetic, its excessive use now requires abstinence.
The source of the odor turned out to be one of the appetizers we ordered — flatbread topped with wild mushrooms, goat cheese, shaved Parmesan and arugula. Minus the scent, the pizza-like flatbread, with its creamy goat cheese and al dente mushrooms, was probably the best dish we ordered. If I order it again it will be with the instruction to leave off the oil or reduce it to a few drops.
Our other starter, beer-battered artichokes with green goddess dipping sauce, was more typical of the very safe menu of usual bar food here. The artichokes tasted like canned artichoke hearts. The batter tasted like batter. The dipping sauce tasted like bottled salad dressing. Drink up and you'll eat 'em happily. Go ahead. Have a bowl of artichoke-spinach dip, too. Oy.
Entrées were disappointing. My pan-seared Copper River salmon was, again, a cliché, with the fish served over sautéed spinach with a very mildly flavored golden ale-mustard sauce. Its "sweet potato strings" turned out to be canned potato sticks. But, worst, the fish was cooked disturbingly dry in some places and raw in others. I know it's appropriate to serve this beloved variety of salmon rare, but we're talking, as Wayne put it, "sushi-raw."
On the other hand, Wayne's braised short ribs, with a Brasstown Beef pedigree, were cooked to chewy dryness in a stout beer that coagulated into bitterness. The hunk of beef was served over grits faintly spiked with roasted poblanos.
We did enjoy our dessert — classic layered strawberry shortcake with firm, fresh strawberries and a not-so-good fluffy whipped cream.
The rest of the menu is mainly sandwiches and salads. Prices are low. The service was uniformly good, with frequent inquiries about the taste of the food. I felt a pang of guilt every time I said, "Good, thanks."
I really wish our meal here had lived up to my nostalgic expectations. Such a magnificent building deserves better food, no matter how simple and straightforward the menu is. Meanwhile, the nearby Porter Beer Bar has nothing to fear.