Baseball season may be over for the rest of the nation, but it just started in Cutler Ridge.
Doc Graham's Taproom & Eatery, which made its debut last month, is a sports-inspired pub named after the turn-of-the-century baseball player who owns one of the shortest major league careers in history: only five minutes of defensive play, for the 1905 New York Giants. Baseball fans -- and/or Kevin Costner followers -- may remember Archibald "Doc" Graham, a.k.a. Moonlight Graham, from Field of Dreams, in which the ghost of young Graham finally steps up to home plate to face a major league pitcher, a distinction he never experienced in real life. Another scene depicts an aged Graham, portrayed by Burt Lancaster, walking away from the magic field after having made the decision to give up batting practice for medical practice, which he considered his true calling.
Just as Moonlight Graham wasn't your typical baseball hero, Doc Graham's isn't your average sports bar. Okay, so that annoying game arcade gets a fairly extensive workout. And a television as big as a movie screen dominates the area. But the "taproom" features about twenty international draft beers. Plus, rather than going the predictable route and honoring Dan Marino and other local cliches, Doc Graham's salutes local high school stars.
Doc Graham's fare is regional, not unlike its decor. Bricks, a prominently displayed motif, were imported from Chicago; a streetlight, positioned in the dining room, hails from New Orleans. Et cetera. The menu ranges from Chicago-style steaks and chops to Louisiana's signature gumbo and pan-fried catfish, with nods to New York, England, and South Florida. Lunch and dinner lists differ -- fish and chips, for example, are a daytime item -- so the Doc Graham's experience can vary.
We had lunch at the pub, which, notwithstanding visits from kiddie personalities such as Billy the Marlin, is sunny and quiet. A charcoal-broiled "dream your own burger" platter -- one of the best hamburgers in town -- was loaded with naturally cut and lightly seasoned French fries, iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, onion, and a pickle. We tried our medium-rare half-pound of freshly ground chuck with crisp bacon and meaty sauteed mushrooms; other options include cheese (Swiss, cheddar, or American), chili, and salsa.
An old-fashioned frankfurter flown in from Libby's Hot Dogs in Paterson, New Jersey, was served in a basket, with fries. This hot and juicy deli-style dog was cooked in the deep fryer in order to generate a crunchy skin; as a result, it was a little greasy. A classic chili sauce of ground beef and raw white onions was a complementary topping; we requested ours on the side, which revealed the disappointing pretzel-rod diameter of the frank. The dish, however, was quite filling, and at just under three dollars, something of a bargain.
A soup-and-half-sandwich combo was only a half-decent investment. The smoked turkey (Doc Graham's uses Boar's Head cold cuts) on whole-wheat bread, with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and potato chips, was a satisfying meal. The accompanying seafood gumbo was another matter. Thick and rich with sausage, okra, and tomatoes, the soup was laced with small, unappealingly mealy shrimp. An overly generous portion of fake crab meat, too, lent an impostor's flavor. Chunks of a fresh white fish would have been much better A though they wouldn't have corrected the fact that the gumbo was as cold as the deli meat in the sandwich.
At dinner the pub changes character, becoming family-style in the (nonsmoking) dining room and a singles scene in the full-service taproom, where no one under 21 years of age is allowed, not even for dinner. Considering the taproom's poor ventilation, we chose to sit with the nonsmokers, but we ordered a ton of bar food as appetizers, anyway.
"Couch potatoes" was an aptly named starter -- that's exactly how we felt after eating them. Also known as Irish nachos, this was a hefty basket of fries doused with chili, cheese, onions, and jalapeno peppers. The chill of the cold onions and jalapenos made for a slight detraction, as did chunks of too-dry steak in the chili. Still, the concoction proved addictive. Medium-hot chicken wings were another all-star pick. Battered and deep-fried, the whole wings were plump and piquant, the hot pepper sauce an ultimate complement. Fried clam tenders, which were of the Howard Johnson restaurant ilk, couldn't compare. The breading overwhelmed the chewy mollusks, which lacked both flavor and buttery texture. A basket of colossal onion rings, drenched in spiced batter and deep-fried to a crisp brown, more than compensated.
Caesar salad is served with all beef and seafood entrees. The romaine in Doc Graham's field of greens was sweet and fresh, the garlicky croutons especially good, but the dressing lacked the pungency of anchovies and tasted like a mediocre Parmesan vinaigrette.
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Reeling from an overdose of cholesterol, we moved on to our entrees. Slow-cooked baby-back ribs were a generous portion with a fair barbecue flavor, slightly overcooked but sufficiently meaty to overcome the resulting dryness. Creamy coleslaw accompanied the ribs. But bayou chicken -- slices of blackened chicken breast served with sauteed red and green peppers over pasta -- should be cut from any team. The poultry was dry, the linguini overcooked and pasty.
South Florida specialties are far better choices. Served with a variety of sauces A key lime butter, tropical fruit or vegetable salsa, toasted almond butter, teriyaki glaze A Doc Graham's renditions of fresh dolphin, swordfish, salmon, snapper, and tuna elevate the kitchen from the minor leagues. We tried snapper and swordfish, both of which were perfectly prepared. The swordfish especially was succulent and juicy, a good-size, enjoyable steak.
Florida resonates in the dessert course, as well. We ordered the "key lime brick," a dense, cheesecakelike version of the traditional pie. Unfortunately the cappuccino was of the instant-machine type, watery and pale. After a sip, we exchanged ours for espresso.
An eerie similarity in the histories of the two Doc Grahams: Both began their new lives with a natural disaster. After graduation Dr. Archibald Graham arrived at his Minnesota hospital only to find it had fallen victim to a disastrous forest fire; he rolled up his sleeves and got to work. Doc Graham's took over the oyster bar that was devastated by Hurricane Andrew. The owners, undoubtedly, were working on the assumption that "If you rebuild it, they will come." And it looks like they were right.