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** 1/2
Out of a possible five

Starting lineup a sure hit at sports bar

I couldn’t help but be miffed a little at, of all things, the paper lining the baskets and plates.

Champions, the new sports bar and restaurant in the Courtyard by Marriott – part of the Harrison Square development downtown – used faux newspaper. It was kind of cool, but I wouldn’t be doing my industry justice if I didn’t point out I would prefer they use the real thing. If the fish and chips shops across the pond are fine using it, so can Champions.

OK, enough ranting.

The best dish I had was served in that phony newsprint and it was the first thing I ordered after a glowing recommendation from my server. The fried calamari appetizer arrived nestled in a black iron, cone-shaped basket with two small ramekins on the side holding marinara and a giardiniera of sport peppers, cucumbers, red peppers and carrot. The calamari was crisp but lightly breaded and somewhat delicate. It was tender and delicious, and I favored the pepper mixture as a condiment as it added a great punch of spicy vinegar flavor.

As I sat and enjoyed this starter, I soaked up the atmosphere at Champions and was torn. It is sharp, clean and classy with plenty of flat-screen TVs deftly arranged so as not to keep it from still feeling like any upscale hotel restaurant, and the walls were dotted with artsy black and white photos of Parkview Field and a few of local NFL legend Rod Woodson. So what was not to like? It just sort of felt like a hotel lobby restaurant; a bit stale, plastic and stuffy. It’s just not the kind of place I would visit to watch a game and hang out with the guys.

The menu also left me wanting more. It was as streamlined as the atmosphere with an emphasis on bar staples with some international fare mixed in. Overall, it was a mixed bag.

In addition to the calamari, the other first courses I tried all hit the right note.

The chicken wings – I had “screaming” from the “humming, singing or screaming” varieties and the Asian honey sesame – were lightly dredged and fried until nicely crisp. The screaming wings were, indeed, hot, but did not make me scream, and the Asian honey were sticky and sweet with a hint of soy flavor.

The clam chowder and chili were wonderful cold-weather options. The chowder, which my server said the chef makes with “a lot of heavy cream and some love,” was thick and rich with still-firm potatoes, a little corn and a sprinkle of parsley. The chili had that hearty hours-in-the-stockpot heartiness, was just spicy enough to tickle the taste buds and was full of chunks of beef, diced green pepper and onion, and kidney beans. I also thought it was a nice touch for Champions to include tri-colored tortilla chips with the chili.

The linguini and meatballs “with 7-hour marinara” was the class of the entrées. The sauce was chunky and clung to the al dente noodles beautifully. It had intense stewed tomato richness but was slightly sweet, which made you want to keep eating it. The meatballs, also available as an appetizer, were perfect. They were made with a blend of ground pork and beef, which made them moist and fatty, and they were flavored with a good amount of parsley and garlic.

The classic bacon cheeseburger was just what you would expect from a good sports bar. It was lean and nicely seared but still pink and juicy in the middle. The Smokey Joe’s pulled pork was not as favorable. The pork was completely masked in this over-sauced sandwich and it reminded me of the kind of low-grade barbecue you would get from a grocery store deli. The double-crisped french fries were great on the side with both sandwiches, and the extra barbecue sauce actually made a nice dip for them.

The Greek steak salad also underwhelmed me. It was pretty meager even for someone with a light appetite with just a few olives and red onions, one cucumber slice and a small pile of crumbled feta to go with the meager serving of skirt steak, which was badly overcooked.

And as good as the starters were, the final courses were equally bad. The apple cobbler was not really a cobbler at all as it had no crust. It consisted of sliced apples in sticky, cinnamon-infused sauce dotted with brown-sugar coated walnuts. The bread pudding was just OK – moist and sticky with a lot of raisins and nuts – but rose to something fantastic when I combined with apples, which is something I would strongly suggest the folks at Champions consider offering.

Restaurant: Champions

Address: 1150 Harrison St.

Phone: 467-1638

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Calamari ($8.95), wings ($9.95 for 12), soup ($4.95), linguini ($12.50), burger ($8.95), BBQ pork sandwich ($9.25), Greek steak salad ($11.95), cobbler and bread pudding ($5.95)

Rating breakdown: Food: * 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net, and you can hear Ryan from 3 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.