Let me say this right off the bat: I came to Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant not to drink but to eat.
After all, the first Missouri location for this Tennessee-based chain isn't serving fried jalapeño poppers and patty melts. In addition to the usual saloon-variety offerings — chicken wings, pizza, burgers and steaks — the oversized Gordon Biersch menu lists pot stickers, steak frites, cashew chicken stir-fry, goat-cheese ravioli and fish and chips.
"Everything on the menu is made from scratch in our kitchen," announced the serious young waiter who handed menus to Addison, Franklin and me on my first visit. He then lowered his voice: "Except the pulled pork and the pot stickers. But those dishes are made by outside vendors to our specifications."
It was a late Friday afternoon, long after the lunch rush, but Gordon Biersch was still bustling. From our vantage point in one of the comfortable upholstered booths, the dining room seemed sliced into odd angles by the layout of tables and long glass dividers.
Soon, our waiter delivered the starter that Franklin had ordered: a bowl piled with flash-fried artichoke hearts. This was, we were told, one of the signature dishes of the Biersch breweries. I stuck my fork right into the bowl and skewered what turned out to be one of the most delicious fried vegetables — really a pumped-up thistle bud — I'd ever tasted. These Parmesan-dusted delicacies were lightly crispy on the outside, moist and meaty inside.
While I dipped one after another of the delectable hearts into a tangy lemon aïoli, Addison was giving the crowd a once-over. "Mostly tourists, I think," he said. It was definitely a motley crew of middle-aged suburbanites, downtown office workers, a couple of thirtysomethings and a few families. "This is the kind of place that would do well in Johnson County," he concluded.
Just then, our server piped in to announce: "We're getting ready to open a new restaurant later this summer at 135th Street and Metcalf."
Well, there you go. Considering how this Chattanooga chain is growing, it's easy to discern the culinary influence of success stories such as the Cheesecake Factory and Bonefish Grill. At Gordon Biersch, the price point is reasonable; the portions are generous; and the dishes, even the more inventive ones, aren't too clever for their own good.
For lunch, Addison ordered goat-cheese ravioli in brown butter sauce. He raved about the coaster-sized squares of pasta, modestly filled with goat cheese and glistening with a sheen of slightly caramelized butter, a smattering of pine nuts, a dash of rosemary and sautéed mushrooms. I thought it was bland, though — the goat cheese was so tasteless, it could have been Philadelphia cream cheese. Still, it was superior to my lunch of beer-battered fish and chips. The batter was made with one of Biersch's brews, so I had high hopes for the fried fish. Alas, it didn't come close to the exceptional — and authentic — fish and chips at Raglan Road just around the corner. The heavily coated white fish was appealingly crunchy, but its fried armor resembled that of a Mrs. Paul's fish stick. And the garlic fries that served as "chips" were perfectly fine if you didn't care for much garlic in your garlic fries.
Franklin, who is fussy about steak frites — the Gallic tradition of juicy beefsteak and crispy fried spuds — wasn't impressed by the Gordon Biersch beef: a flat-iron steak marinated in mildly sweet Marzen lager. Ideally, the flat-iron cut shouldn't require much in the way of a marinade; it's nice and tender if the sinewy gristle running through the center of the shoulder cut is trimmed away. But Franklin frowned as he sawed into one of the seemingly succulent slices lolling on a gaggle of fries. "This steak's a little on the chewy side," he said. Maybe he should have ordered the Asian version, drizzled with teriyaki sauce and sided with mashed potatoes and asparagus.