Sunday, January 9, 2011

Ballantine in Willoughby

Some friends asked my fiancee and I to go out to dinner to celebrate our engagement and it was my job to come up with a place to eat in the Willoughby/Mentor area.  I wanted to try somewhere new, and Ballantine in downtown Willoughby came to mind.   Even though we have all been to Ballantine before to have drinks, we have ever eaten dinner there.  Ballantine to me is a Gastropub.  They offer a variety of craftbeers and their menu reflects more of what you would expect to see at a higher quality restaurant, but don't take it from me, here is what Ballantine says on their website: "We’ll strive to bring you the highest quality ingredients, the greatest beers available to the market, & great service that you can come to expect every single visit. We represent New American cuisine and American & Belgian craft beer brought to you in a non-traditional surrounding. We are not just a restaurant or simply a bar with food, we are a fusion of a steakhouse, stone-oven pizza place, beer bar, & eccentric cocktail lounge."

Food---Ballantine's slogan which is printed front and center on their menu is "Wood Fired Pizza, Chops and Bier".  One of their most popular offerings are their Dry Aged Steaks.   Here is how they describe their dry aging process: "We use choice beef and age it for 21 to 45 days. During this process a crust forms on the outside of the loin. This layer is trimmed away, leaving steaks that are superior in tenderness and flavor. During the dry aging process, the juices are absorbed into the meat, enhancing the flavor and tenderizing the steaks."   Being a huge fan of steaks, I was 100% getting some sort of steak offering.  If you are not a steak fan they have many other choices such as seafood, chicken and even some vegetarian choices.  I liked how they had beer pairings listed for several of the entrees.  I thought this was a wonderful addition to the menu that could really help people make a smarter beer choice. 

Now onto our meal...After looking over the menu and going back and forth on a few steak choices, I ended up picking the Filet Oscar.   It came served with lump crab meat,  Bearnaise sauce, and asparagus.  All steak meals come with with a side of their Belgian fries, a small garden salad, and one other small side.  For my other side I picked the Mac and Cheese.  This meal was priced at the higher end of their menu, $28,  so I was expecting some really excellent quality food.  The salad that was brought out was all mixed greens, and came topped with a little mozzarella cheese, red onions and a few grape tomato halves.  The house balsamic dressing was very good and the salad was a nice way to start the meal. Simple, yet effective.
Next came my entree.  The first thing that struck me was how the the filet was smothered in sauce.  I love Bearnaise sauce, but to me the amount that was poured over this prime cut of meat was excessive.  You can see in the picture that the steak is covered and there is quite a bit of sauce on the plate as well.  As I ate, the sauce continually dominated the flavor of the steak.   At points during my meal, I was scraping off the sauce just so I could enjoy the steak.  I was disappointed because this 28 day aged steak had no chance to shine through this sauce.  Also, the amount of lump crab meat that came with it was very minuscule, there were literally 3 tiny pieces of crab meat on top of the steak.   Aside from the plethora of sauce and virtually no crab meat, the steak was pretty good.  I ordered the steak cooked medium, and it came served more close to medium well, but it was by no means dried out.  Needless to say I was a little disappointed by my steak and the preparation of the Filet Oscar.  The Belgian fries are described on the menu as crispy, thick cut, and seasoned with rosemary and garlic.  My fries were half crispy and half soft, they were thick cut, but they were underseasoned to the point that my fiancee didn't even think they were seasoned at all.  I love fries, but I left over half of what you see in the picture on the plate because they were not appetizing.
With and underwhelming steak, and fries that were not very good, there was one saving grace to my main meal...the mac and cheese.  The macaroni was cooked perfectly and everything was well seasoned with salt, pepper and hint of garlic.  The top layer of the mac and cheese had a wonderful crumble topping that added some great texture to the velvety cheese underneath it.  The cheese was creamy and full of flavor.  I really enjoyed this mac and cheese, and  my fiancee also couldn't keep her fork out of it either!
Besides eating my mac and cheese, my fiancee ordered the Isreali basil cous cous and added grilled chicken to it.  The dish came served with mixed vegetables and a dill creme fraiche. What you don't see in the picture is the chicken because it came out without the chicken.  I didn't want to delay her eating so I took the picture right away so she could start her meal.  After about three to five minutes our waitress brought her a grilled piece of chicken that was sliced and she added to her dish.  The cous cous was cooked perfectly as were the vegetables and chicken.  The problem with this dish was that is was bland.  Even after thoroughly mixing in the dill creme fraiche we both agreed the dish desperately needed some salt and pepper to help to bring some life to it.  Adding salt and pepper at the table helped, but this dish really needed to be properly seasoned as it was bring prepared to really bring out the flavors in the dish.  My fiancee liked the dish, she just didn't love it.
Overall neither of us were overly impressed by our meal.  On one hand I did have a side salad, a steak and fries, and a side of mac and cheese.  That is a good quantity of food.  On the other hand the best part of my meal was the salad and mac and cheese, which is not what I paid the $28 entree price for.   The steak was good once I scraped away the plethora of sauce.  The cous cous and chicken were average once some seasoning was added to it.   The meal was by no means horrible, but for the price we paid and for the descriptions of the plates we both expected higher quality.  What I think could have made this meal better overall would be to serve less overall food quantity, and to provide higher quality portions.   Food wise I give Ballantine a 3.75/5.

Drinks---As I said earlier in this review we have been to Ballantine many times for drinks because they do offer a great craftbeer selection.   It isn't as easy to find an east side bar that offers a wide selection of craftbeer (Outside of the Winking Lizard).  Ballantine offers around 30 beers on draft at all times in addition to their bottled beer list.  They also usually have a fair amount of seasonal craftbeer offerings.  If you are not a beer drinker, they have different types of mixed cocktails and wine offerings to choose from.  Draft beers range in price from $5-$7, and large bottles of beer (22oz) can be priced anywhere from $10-$20 a bottle.   Glasses of wine were priced at $7-$10 a glass.  They also offer $3 pints on Wednesday for drafts $5.50 and under.  (From prior experiences double check when you order because not all drafts qualify even though they are under that $5.50 price tag.)  With a good selection of quality craftbeer and a good drink offering outside of beer Ballantine gets a 4.5/5
Be sure to check out my Craftbeer Review Page for a review on this Craftbeer and many more!

Atmosphere, Service and Overall---Ballantine's atmosphere is really the tale of two stories.  Before 9pm Ballantine is a medium noise, trendy place to eat and drink.   It is a place you could enjoy a meal and a conversation with friends and family.  After 9pm Ballantine turns into more of a bar/club atmosphere.  The bar starts to fill up with people who are there primarily for drinks.  Around 10pm the bar turns the music up from a medium level to a very high level.  Having a conversation with people around you becomes difficult if not impossible.  Sometimes the bar is so full just making a trip to the bathroom can take 10 minutes.   Service wise our  service this evening was very good.  The server knew the menu well and was able to describe the dishes in detail.   She was quick to get our drink orders and quick to fix the mistake of the missing chicken.   Even though the restaurant was pretty busy, she remained on top of our table and provided us with very good service.  Overall Ballantine is a good place to find a craft beer on the east side of town.  If you don't like loud music just make sure you go between between 4:30pm and 9pm. (Their hours of operation are 4:30pm-2:30am Monday-Saturday.)  The food for us this time was a miss but I'll go back and give them a second try sometime soon.  Next time I'll just order one of their wood fired pizza's instead.  Overall I'd give Ballantines a 4/5.


Renee said...

I have to admit that when you told me you ordered the Filet Oscar, a second entree & drinks and didn't feel like your meal was worth the $80 before tip, I was skeptical. However, this review is written very fairly, and the reader can absolutely relate to what you felt. I can also feel your disappointment- it’s clear that you wanted to love your meal, but just couldn’t!

This is definitely a case where a picture is worth a thousand words. I also love Béarnaise, but that sauce is simply too rich for the quantity provided. And, yes- it would completely overpower the steak and leave me wondering what the restaurant was hiding! (Maybe that it was not cooked to order, but rather overcooked?)

Your fiancée’s entree also looks unappealing. Perhaps the chicken would help, but it's all just so white- it actually looks bland! I also wouldn't care to cut up the veggies as I ate, as I like to get many flavors together on my fork. That dish definitely needs a little heat and some color!

Firsthand experience with those frites allows me to completely understand your comments about them. I will say that the first time I ever ordered them; they were out of this world good. I’ve ordered them many times since, hoping to re-create that experience. Once or twice they’ve been okay; a few times they’ve been completely undercooked and not worth the calories. The frites are the most inconsistent item I’ve come across on their menu. Did you receive a dipping sauce at all? That might explain why they were under seasoned- they are usually served with 3 dipping sauces during Happy Hour.

Like you, I’ve had drinks at small bites at Ballantine’s many times. However, I’ve never eaten a full meal there. I had always planned to do so, and I still will sometime soon. The quantity of food seems very reasonable for the $28 Filet Oscar price tag, but I’ll likely stick with a basic steak because of your review. Or, I’ll be that dreaded patron that asks for the sauce on the side! 

Thanks for this review. Ballantine’s is a great addition to the East Side and I really want to see them thrive. However, I would expect their best chef to be at the helm on a Saturday night, and I would also be disappointed if I spent roughly $100 on a meal and the highlight was a salad and a side of mac & cheese!

Unknown said...

Ok, your tweet from yesterday afternoon makes sense now about having a difficult time writing this. And looking at the picture, I see a tiny corner of the steak peeking out from the sauce.

Ben said...

I've never been to Ballantine but enjoyed reading your review. I know from experience that being sharply critical of a restaurant on a published blog feels weird and can be difficult, but what's a review worth if it isn't honest? These seem like pretty basic mistakes, though, that wouldn't be hard to fix. If the restaurant is truly working with high quality meat, it should not be overcooked and drowned in sauce, and chefs should know the importance of salt. Hopefully someone will be reading this and will address the issues.

Brad said...

Thanks Renee, Hungry in Cleveland and Ben for your comments.

I have emailed them about the review with no response. I have also tweeted them and facebooked them the link to the review with no response. I think if I don't hear back from them soon I am going to call to make sure the manager or owner actually read it.

It was truly sad to see such poorly executed food at a price of $28 for my plate alone.

It really makes you appreciate a place like Washington Place, Greenhouse or Amp150.

pchak said...

I think it's fair. Your main gripe is too much bearnaise (yikes!). You said the filet was flavorful, but I think you have a fair gripe.

As for chix and couscous, I'd find that bland anywhere. Odd that it was missing the chix, though. That's just a simple fail.

However, value-wise, I think Ballantine is fine, considering the steaks. You cannot get a 16oz (Shel's mom's steak last night was pushing 20) dry-aged delmonico with all the fixin's for $21. The only place better is Red, for a LOT more $. The rib-eye is I just don't order a 23oz steak (only $27!) often. Last night, my boursin-stuffed rib-eye (topped w/shrooms) was well north of 1.5 lbs for $28. Wood-fired pizzas are as good as BC.

I think the rest of the menu is on par with Bar Cento. AMP 150, IMO is a different class of place, and GHT is in a class of its own.

Frite-wise, I agree Renee. They're not as good as they used to be, but still normally good. Not up to par w/Sawyer-run Bar Cento (best.frites.ever) or GHT, but is good as it current BC, considering they're sister g-pubs.

I'm a bit biased, because it's our go-to, but I am perplexed with why you got no response from them. However, I would have pointed out the issue. They bend over backwards if their is something wrong. I've had mis-fires w/a burger, a pork chop that was nowhere near what was decribed, and an awful cut of delmonico (it was the end-I thought it was a top sirloin). We have to watch how we critique what we're served there, as they'll immediately want to fix what they perceive as a wrong. I only ate a couple bites of salad last night in anticipation of the steak, and our server thought I didn't like the dressing. Personally, I would have said something about your Exxon Valdez Bearnaise issue at the time. BTW, you can "Oscar" any steak for a couple bucks for it bearnaise, or other various sauces

I know ratings are subjective, and everyone has their own personal taste, but 3.75 on the food is ok, considering your problem. If that wasn't an issue, I 'm sure it would have been even higher. Considering my top 3 restaurants are Momocho/GHT/Lolita (order depending on mood), Ballantine would be a half step behind that three-way tie.

Overall, great review, Brad!


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