Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Pain and Pleasure of Falling in Love

Grandma Greco’s Special Wings are juicy and laced with an invisible layer of tempestuous spice. Credit Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times        
The chicken wing was juicy and laced with an invisible layer of tempestuous spices, and the moment I bit into it, I turned into Nicolas Cage in “Moonstruck.” Words welled up inside. I needed to tell that chicken wing how I felt: “I’m in love with you.” At that instant, the spices reared back and smacked me across the lips. Delicious agony began to spread to the rest of my mouth. Sips of cold beer did nothing to diminish the impact. Hours later, I could still feel the sting.

I really wanted to adore the Bronx Beer Hall as much as I adored those hot wings, but like Cher’s character, fending off the advances of Mr. Cage’s operatic one-handed baker, the place seemed to specialize in making itself difficult to love. Hatched last year by two young brothers who dream of bringing fresh spirit to a distressingly sleepy stretch of Arthur Avenue, the hall can be found inside an old-school marketplace, where you may pick up a week’s supply of olives, pancetta and marinated anchovies while, if you’re lucky, an elderly gentleman plays an elegiac version of Andrea Bocelli’s “Con Te Partirò” at the lonesome piano by the entrance. Grab a seat at the bar, or at the cluster of tables, and you feel lucky to be surrounded by the bounty of this storied Italian-American neighborhood. You want to linger.

But what’s bizarre is how disconnected the beer hall seems to be from that bounty. Yes, the beers on tap — a black I.P.A. called Misfit Toy from Great South Bay Brewery on Long Island; a white lager from SingleCut Beersmiths in Astoria, Queens — tend to be proudly local and consistently guzzle-worthy. They tangle well with Grandma Greco’s Special Wings, even when the hot-tempered Ms. Greco throws a capsaicin tantrum on your gums. It’s a shame, then, that so much of the rest of the pub grub at the hall is confusingly awful.
I’m still trying to erase the memory of the One & Only Truffle Burger, a culinary experiment so botched that it almost made a vegetarian out of me. Like a Bronx-based, speck-and-fontina-topped spin on Daniel Boulud’s famously luxurious carnivore magnet at DB Bistro Moderne, this one involves strips of truffled osso buco that are squeezed inside a patty made from sirloin and filet mignon.
It sounds good on paper. Alas, there are serious infrastructure issues. When I ordered it, the bun was too crusty and tall; the meat arrangement was too mushy and loose. I took a bite, and the edges of the ground beef squished outward. Before long, the whole thing fell apart, and I spied a sad, strange-looking knob of veal shank in the middle, curled like a fossil. I reached for my beer to wash away the image — and what seemed to be an oceanic residue of salt.
How, I wondered, does such a burger honor the legacy of Arthur Avenue? And what’s the point of offering a six-option Sausage Fest if each meaty link has been cooked so long that it has the texture of sun-bleached sailing rope? Does this historic neighborhood really need crostini made with peanut butter, strawberries, balsamic glaze and truffle oil?
For me, crushing disappointment came in the form of a “cheese board.” Here we sat, just steps away from some of the finest Italian cheeses in the city, and yet one of the selections on the platter was a very soft, bland, suspiciously triangular wedge of the Laughing Cow-ish fromage that you’d usually spot at the supermarket.
It’s rare that a restaurant allows you to order food from an alternative menu. On my final foray into the Bronx Beer Hall, I opted for a terrific meatball parm sandwich and a Big Mike Combo, with Italian cold cuts and provolone, from Mike’s Deli, the Greco family’s counter a few yards away. (Which makes sense: David Greco is a partner in the beer hall.)
So why aren’t they serving more of the real stuff at the Bronx Beer Hall? Well, maybe only the white-haired fellow at the piano can figure out the logic behind that. I still happen to think it’s a lovely place to hang out, and with a few radical menu changes, it could become the drinking-and-noshing destination that it’s supposed to be.
In the end, the Bronx Beer Hall made me feel like Cher in “Moonstruck.” I wanted to smack someone and shout, “Snap out of it!” But I say that with love.

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