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That Saturday night, a group of us -- drinkers and teetotalers -- dined underneath a portrait of country legend Wynn Stewart. Cantwell and his wife, Doris; Bob; Lorraine; and Cindy had joined me for an early but raucous dinner. Early is good here; by 6 p.m. the bar was already packed (including a sophisticated lady knitting at one end and a guy who used to work with Zsa Zsa Gabor at the other). Starving, we snapped up the menus from dark-haired server Jessie -- a painter in her other life -- who quickly explained that chef Howard Boyd had already eighty-sixed a few items.
Boyd and Murphy are still tinkering with the menu, but they know better than to mess with their best-selling item: that Appalachian classic, the fried-bologna sandwich. Boyd doesn't use Oscar Mayer but instead stacks his version with that tissue-thin, packaged sandwich-meat stuff, which doesn't taste like bologna or baloney. It's filling enough, but it's more salty than tasty. It's also served undressed, which miffed one priggish patron. "Doesn't it come with a sauce?" he whined. Murphy's answer said it all: "No."
I prefer the entrée choices to the sandwich selection, though during an earlier afternoon visit, I'd enjoyed the oddball choice tucked among the BLTs and burgers: a tortilla wrapped around a filling of sautéed portabella mushrooms, eggplant, red peppers and corn relish. It was messy to eat but tasted fantastic, even without a sauce.
Harry's lunch business was brisk, but the place was really swinging after dusk. The lights were dimmed, the music was loud and the fried onion rings came out of the kitchen like sizzling bangle bracelets, accessorized with a surprisingly mild ancho-chile ketchup. Fluffy corn fritters were filled with bits of tender blue crab but took most of their flavor from the accompanying cactus aioli. Tiny slices of beer bread were lively with chopped peppers but suffered from an odd, rubbery consistency -- though the dipping sauce that came with the doughy rectangles was a fine blend of Asiago cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. Boyd calls his grilled shrimp sheathed in smoky bacon "Sea Hogs" and serves them with a creamy horseradish sauce, though they're just as tasty without it.
Lorraine said that Boyd's menu "goes all over the world," and that wasn't exactly a compliment. One Mexican option, a "Big Burrito" crammed with chicken, rice, salsa and a fluffy black-bean mousse, is solid enough. But I was unimpressed by the Midwestern version of a pasta carbonara, made with penne and doused in a heavy (and not very garlicky) cream sauce. The primary ingredient seemed to be peas, which isn't just an American innovation but also a bad one.
Even worse, I'm sorry to say, was the City Fried Filet that Lorraine ordered. The hunk of beef had been pounded -- with a 10-pound hammer, maybe -- into a steaklette as thin as a record, then ladled over with mushrooms and the poblano-flavored pan gravy. I didn't think it was very flavorful, and neither did Lorraine, who neglected it in favor of a little cheese-coated square of grits. Bob enjoyed his bowl of meaty, spicy chili, and Cindy was happy with her standard-issue steakburger, though it arrived more well-done than she'd ordered it. "And the fries were the closest things to McDonald's fries I've had in a sit-down restaurant," she said.
Classic honky-tonks weren't known for serving desserts, but Harry's had great ones. The house-made peach cobbler, topped with a scoop of Häagen-Dazs ice cream, was really more of a fruit potpie than a traditional cobbler, though it probably needed to stay in the oven a few minutes longer. The fudgy wedge of chocolate torte, imported from a local baker, was as smooth and seductive, I bet, as one of Annie Chambers' good-time girls.