Gordon Biersch Brewery aspires to bar-food greatness but stumbles along the way 

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Our desserts were better than our entrées, which says volumes, though the warm-apple bread pudding in "sticky bun caramel sauce" didn't have much in the way of visual style (or apples, for that matter). The layered carrot cake was impressive, though: a slab so big that Franklin took much of it home and was still nibbling on it three days later.

In fact, Franklin was probably still eating carrot cake when I went back to Gordon Biersch for dinner with Shelby and Bob. These two restaurant-industry veterans were impressed with the way the brewery looked and with our cool, efficient young server, Courtney, who had started her career at Applebee's. She told us Gordon Biersch was a vast improvement — which I assured her was an understatement. That said, the Chef's Sampler of starters could have fit right in on any Applebee's menu: petite chicken wings slathered in a sticky chili-ginger glaze; shrimp-and-chicken pot stickers that were oddly fishy tasting; and flaky Southwest egg rolls crammed with chicken, corn, red peppers and cheese.

Bob had rubbed his hands together at the thought of steak medallions and crab-stuffed shrimp, one of the five "house specialties" on the dinner menu. The "medallions" of grilled beef were aptly named: not much bigger than 50-cent pieces, though tender and luscious. But the stuffed shrimp, I'm sorry to say, were pallid balls of a dreary crab concoction wobbling on top of a butterflied crustacean — possibly the least attractive presentation of seafood ever. After two bites, Bob pushed the shrimp to the side of his plate.

My meatloaf dinner wasn't going to win any awards, either, for looks or taste. The slices were artfully etched with grill marks but bland even when dipped in the shiny brown gravy at the side of the plate. "It's like something from a cheap diner," Shelby sniffed. He'd almost ordered it himself, until our server advised him that the pecan-crusted chicken was one of Biersch's best-selling entrées. And it's true that these pounded chicken breasts might indeed seem downright tasty after a few rounds of ale — particularly with that thick, crunchy crust of chopped, fried pecans. Stone-cold sober, however, they were less appealing. I thought the bird was too thin and dry, and Shelby hated the cornstarch-based lemon sauce — not mentioned on the menu — and the medley of soggy julienne vegetables.

Once again, the towering dessert was the highlight: a thick stack of amazingly moist chocolate layer cake enrobed in fudgy frosting. I don't know if there was beer in the batter, but it was plenty intoxicating.

I really wanted to like Gordon Biersch. The restaurant has a lot going for it. The crew at the hostess desk are friendly and personable, the servers are young and surprisingly well-trained, and the dining room is bright and attractive. A friend of mine who is into the art of microbrewed beverages insists that Gordon Biersch's Marzen lager is practically the nectar of the gods. "And if you drink enough of it," he confessed to me, "all the food tastes fantastic."

I know nothing of the art of brewing beer, but I do know that it's difficult for even the most organized kitchen to pull off consistent perfection from an ambitiously large menu. Gordon Biersch seems to put out as many disappointing clinkers as excellent dishes. But then, I'm not drinking.

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