With baseball season in full swing, I can't help but think “knocked it out of the park” when it comes to Welch's Ale House.
The restaurant and bar on South Calhoun Street once known as Calhoun Street Soups, Salads and Spirits – or CS3 – hasn't changed much aesthetically since it closed for a short time in the fall, and that is a good thing.
The aged bar with Tiffany chandeliers hanging overhead make it something to behold. The refurbished tin ceiling is stunning, and the wooden floors, rustic booths and exposed brick emphasize its history, as does the new name, which pays homage to the days when the location was known as John H. Welch & Sons Hardware.
So what was different? The service was flawless, and the streamlined, bar-focused menu fit the place perfectly. There were no off-the-wall items that you wouldn't expect, and there was nothing obvious missing. And there was a fantastic salad bar.
It was actually an item on that salad bar that really made me happy – alfalfa sprouts. A staple back when salad bars/buffets were all the rage in the 1990s, they seemed to have disappeared recently. I love them on about anything and also loved the salad bar's multitude of olives, chopped eggs and plethora of dressing options.
A relatively new appetizer got things started off right. The Mediterranean Nachos weren't nachos at all; they were lightly fried flatbread triangles that were a little crispy outside but still soft and yummy. They were piled with seasoned ground lamb, diced onions, tomatoes and cucumbers, feta cheese and cool, creamy tzatziki sauce.
The sharp pop of the raw onions kept it fresh, and the lamb was delicious and had me wanting to try the Mediterranean burger. The only minor glitch was that the feta didn't melt enough and probably should have been crumbled finer.
Burgers are clearly the focus at Welch's Ale House – though the restaurant doesn't seem to market itself as a burger bar – as there are nine varieties plus a build-your-own option. The two I tried were fabulous, and I would be shouting from the cheap seats about them.
The Man Cave Burger was a piece of art. Welch's Beer Cheese poured out onto the plate like lava, and it had a double dose of thick, perfectly cooked bacon. That was it, and that was all it needed.
The Italian Burger was as delicious as it was unique. This “burger” was actually “Grandma's meatball recipe” smashed and topped with sautéed red and green peppers, marinara and mozzarella.
Welch's suggests its burgers, supplied locally by Feders Meats, be cooked to medium-well, but my medium-rare version had the perfect level of pinkness. The sweetness of the peppers and that marinara was delightful, and the burger tasted like a homemade meatball. There was a little red pepper heat, too, but the pub bun was a little sweet to offset it. Next time I might ask for extra mozzarella to make it even more delectable, but regardless it was a masterpiece that I will crave again soon.
The only non-burger sandwich I tried was quite confusing, but, once I got past that, it was a decent option.
I ordered the chicken salad on a croissant, but thought after my first bite I was given tuna salad. My server said it looked like chicken salad given it had sliced grapes, whereas the tuna salad has dried cranberries. She went to the kitchen and returned with the same sandwich and a tiny bowl of tuna salad. When I tried it, I knew it was clearly tuna, but the difference between the chicken and tuna salads was not distinct. The server said many others have mistaken the chicken salad for tuna, which made me feel better.
Well, both of the house-made salads were tasty, and you could not go wrong with either. I did go wrong with the rather mediocre croissant, however, and would opt for sourdough next time.
I am a sucker for an interesting and satisfying soup, and Welch's Ale House served me two that could not have been more opposite but which I would not hesitate to have again.
The wild mushroom looked rather simple, but it was packed with mushroom flavor. The mushrooms were finely diced and plentiful, so they were almost like ground beef in a chili. A touch of cream kept it from being vegan, but it was a needed component, and I thought I might have detected a little beer flavor.
The chilled watermelon soup was also simple in ingredients – watermelon juice, chopped fresh mint and crumbled feta on the side – but its flavor was complex. The juice was super sweet, so I dumped all of the cheese in it and was left with a salty-sweet summery soup with the perfect hint of mint.
I loved everything about it except its lack of viscosity, which made it a challenge to spoon out without spilling. I think it would have been better as a bar shooter with a little vodka introduced.
I also found Welch's chicken wings to be a decent first course. The chipotle-lime barbecue sauce I chose had a nice mix of acidic brightness, spice and sweetness, and it was slathered on quite heavily. The decent-sized wings still had crispy parts despite the heavy sauce application, and I enjoyed them.
The biggest mistake I made at the Ale House was paying $4 extra to have a side salad instead of a standard side. It was quite good, with plenty of egg, cheese and bacon crumbles that kept it from being like a normal, boring bar side salad. But I could have made one trip to the salad bar for a dollar more, which would have been more than worth it.
Though not made on-site, the desserts at Welch's Ale House were worth a try. The fudge cake was a decadent delight with rich dark layers of cake and super sweet, fudge-like icing that was more than the cake required. The caramel apple cake was also a layered creation with moist, spice-spike cake and cream cheese icing.
When you add it up, this new version of an old favorite along Calhoun Street was clearly a winner – knocking it over the fence, with no need for instant replay.
Restaurant: Welch's Ale House
Address: 1915 S. Calhoun St.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Saturday and Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Wings ($7 for 6; $13 for 12), Mediterranean Nachos ($9), salad bar ($9), Man Cave Burger ($10), Italian Burger ($10), chicken or tuna salad ($8), soup ($4 cup; $5 bowl), desserts ($4)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★★1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: ★ (1 maximum), service: ★ (1 maximum)
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. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
Welch's Ale House
Out of a possible five