Brew With a View

Big Buck looks like a hunting lodge. You'll be hunting for something good to eat.
Stephen P. Karlisch

It's difficult to decide what to like best about Big Buck Brewery & Steakhouse. Is it the 360-degree jet-black audio speakers that look like charred beehives hanging from the ceiling? Or is it the Big Buck urinals? The latter, a steakhouse innovation soon to be copied in every segment of the restaurant market, is an ingenious merging of the latest in video technology with conventional flush technology. Just above Big Buck's urinals are little 9-inch (I suspect) color television screens. No more phone numbers to copy with one hand, no more misspelled profanity to squint at, no more topless-club addresses to memorize. Now you can watch TV while you... And the nice thing about the televisions is that they are tuned to different stations, so you can choose which show to watch (based on availability). While your urinal neighbor might be enjoying a rerun of Seinfeld, you could be shivering in near fear over the latest episode of The X-Files. And though there is a range of diversity in Big Buck's urinal programming fare, it's wise to keep your eyes on your own show.

Me, I was enjoying football, the New York Giants vs. the Arizona Cardinals. Of course, it's hard to enjoy a full four quarters of urinal football without one vital ingredient: beer. Fortunately, Big Buck has it. Gallons of it. The top level of this restaurant cum expansive mountain lodge with stone pillars and high wood-beam ceilings is jammed with glistening brewery tanks, pipes, and metal platforms. Next to the glassed-in brewery is a handsome bar with more televisions and barstools made of deer antlers. (Don't hop up on these, especially if you've had more than a half-yard of Big Buck brew.) Big Buck offers a variety of fresh-brewed beers from light to dark including Buck Naked Light, Antler Ale, and Black River Stout. There's even a blend called Cherry Shandy, a mixture of housemade cherry soda and Buck Naked Light. Why do brewers attempt to craft beers that taste like coffee-shop muffins?

Anyway, after tasting a sampler of five 5-ounce Big Buck beers, I've determined that they are good enough to drive four quarters of football, but not much else. These brews are crisp and relatively smooth, but they lack body and finish. They are thin, uninteresting drinks.

Yet the beer is better than the food for the most part. One of the items that scores roughly as well as the beer is the doe tails, crescent dumplings stuffed with ground pork and vegetables. These little pouches had a crispy dumpling sleeve holding a mildly spiced interior mélange. In the mouth, these tails resemble a slightly dry pot sticker.

The sampler platter stuttered. Chicken tenderloins, coated in a crispy yet listless golden batter, were dry, tough, and stringy. Far better was the portobello bruschetta, a tasty, chewy nibble with a scattering of tangy marinated mushrooms stuck to pieces of garlicky bread with cheese goo. Onion antlers were the usual battered onion-thread knots with the typical lack of flavor dripping with the typical layer of grease: something that could use a good beer wash.

Interestingly, despite all of the heads of hoofed creatures mounted on the walls, Big Buck serves virtually no game. OK, so they do have a smoked-venison Reuben and ale-battered cod. But I was expecting something a little bit more adventurous, like chicken-hawk tacos or bunny potpie or buffalo haggis. Instead, what you find on the menu is this: "About our steak. Big Buck is proud to have been selected by the Excel Corporation [a meat packer] to serve the finest beef in the Midwest...Sterling Certified Premium U.S.D.A. choice beef. This is not the beef you buy at your local supermarket or find at ordinary restaurants..."

Thank God, because if it were, the steakhouse industry would be brought to its knees. The T-bone was a bleak thing: gray, thin, and, I guess, hard to cook. I ordered my steak medium-rare. But after it arrived and our "beer and steak specialist" (as the servers are called) suggested I cut into it to check the hue, we discovered it was wrong. Instead of a warm rosy tint, what I found was a gray pallor. So my "specialist" suggested I swap it for a new one. This gave me the opportunity to sample the assortment of other Big Buck menu entrées delivered to our table while I waited for the kitchen to grill another steak, which they do from an open kitchen that impersonates a giant hearth in a huge stone fireplace. A pair of stuffed bucks is perched above.

Yet in the midst of all this gaudy antler garb, the thing that is so inexplicable about Big Buck is the lighting in the center of the dining room. The glow is cast by a series of huge rectangular argon lights bolted high up between the ceiling beams, the kind used in repair shops and streetlamps. Sure, this is a cheap source of illumination, but it tends to make everything look ashen, from the food to the faces. The crowd at our table resembled a collection of cons eating aged Dinty Moore entrées.

The Sterling silver steak salad managed to break the bonds of this dismal cast. It resembled a monument to red meat: a huge mound of greens ringed by cucumber slices and wedges of cold, hard, red potato. Near the top was a wreath of bright orange carrot shreds. The crown consisted of slices of tender grilled tenderloin that was perhaps a little shy on richness.

A monument built to the house-smoked Wisconsin Street ribs wouldn't even constitute a molehill. These were little more than a neat row of skeletal remains, with a heavy emphasis on skeletal. Not much meat was present on these bony twigs, and what was there was gray, dry, and tough.

Pecan-crusted salmon looked like a meatloaf with zits. This was on account of the maple glaze ladled atop the fish with pecan bits pimpling the surface. However appealing this dish may have appeared, the taste fell shy of optimal. The fish was watery with the texture of a mushy sponge. With a sweetish essence running rampant because of that maple-pecan substance, its flavor resembled that of a fishy sticky bun. A side of orzo confetti was a little slimy from the oily vinaigrette in which the grains were swimming.

Snout offerings were little better than fishy ones. Two marinated center-cut pork chops topped with herb butter were thin and brutally cooked out of their cute pinkishness. The meat was gray and enervated, with little flavor or moisture to speak above its dismal slumber. A side of mashed potatoes could have doubled as wall mud.

Prime rib was delicious. Served with a choice of horseradish sauce or au jus, the 10-ounce slice of flesh was tender, moist, and tasty, with just enough fat globules.

By the time the new T-bone arrived, I was fairly full of scraps from the rest of the menu, and my palate was pestered with an aftertaste of a salmon sticky bun pork-n-beef salad cornucopia. But this time, a cut into the graying T-bone revealed a deep blue-plum core: a T-bone with disturbing hues. And the meat had an off flavor, a sweet dried-fruit kind of taste.

Desserts were a bit more palatable. Though stiff and a little pasty, the pumpkin cheesecake still had a good flavor, though there was no crust to speak of. Apple Betty, a deep bowl filled with apples and covered with a crunchy lid of brown sugar, oats, and nuts, was rich with a lively, sweet apple tang. Yet dining is not really the main attraction at Big Buck. It's the brew, even if it does flirt a little too aggressively with insipidity. And the urinals.

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