Bar Raising 

Beer gets top billing at Capital Ale House, but can the food keep pace?

The Capital Ale House fits into this category. Its downtown location opened in the fall of 2002 and has managed to conquer a not-so-prime address on Main Street. With little foot traffic in that part of town at night, the Ale House has survived and in fact thrived by attracting hordes of business types who pile in every day at noon and again after work. There are a few tables in the front window section and a long row of dark wooden booths that continues to the end of the dining room. The lovely oak bar runs nearly 50 feet and is now famous for its innovative strip of solid ice down the middle — the ultimate bar cozy.

There is also a downstairs pub that offers pool and darts. The atmosphere is comfortable, but the track lighting is far too harsh for a bar crowd, exaggerating a somewhat sterile feeling. The staff is fantastic: Each person I encountered on both visits was helpful and warm.

The first matter of business is to somehow choose a beer from the menu of 200-plus offerings. This can be daunting, but thankfully, they are listed by type: ale, lager, etc. Tastes are available to those who wish to sample first. I enjoyed a Spaten Premium Lager, a refreshing golden German brew with a nice balance of hops and malt.

One glance at the menu lets you know the kitchen is more ambitious than one in a typical pub. The appetizers alone include smoked salmon, roasted oysters and duck quesadillas. Fried calamari is always a good choice to test the deep-frying chops of the kitchen. The results were admirable: golden rings of calamari evenly breaded with a crunchy shell of cornmeal batter. The squid still held its trademark chew without being overcooked. The roasted red pepper marinara was a true disappointment, however. It was overly spicy and too thick, mixing canned tomatoes with what looked and tasted like salsa. The acidity of tomato and heat were too much for my palate.

For entrees, the pork tenderloin was a huge portion of tender slices that were bland and in need of salt. The maple syrup glaze was cloyingly sweet. The mashed potatoes were sticky but above average; the steamed broccoli waterlogged and tasteless. The roasted vegetable striped ravioli was badly undercooked and tasted like it had been frozen too long. Be sure to read the menu descriptions well; we were disappointed to find the same marinara from the appetizers plopped on the plate.

Lunchtime is bustling at the Ale House. Dill chicken salad was excellent: huge chunks of grilled chicken bound together with dill mayonnaise, golden raisins and toasted walnuts. Order anything with the "beer-b-que" sauce. The smokehouse chicken sandwich was drenched in this smoky chipotle sauce spiked with barley beer. The french fries that came with both of these lunch items were perfect: crispy and salty, just right with a cold beer. Desserts are enormous, and the chocolate layer cake divine. It was dense and moist with piles of billowy fudge frosting.

Owners Chris Holder and Matt Simmons both paid their dues at local Legend Brewery. The downtown location's success has spawned an Innsbrook branch, which is larger and has more of a restaurant vibe.

With more attention to the details of the kitchen, the Ale House could follow through with what the menu promises. If they want to offer more than bar food, they need to be capable of executing more sophisticated fare. In kitchen terms, don't bite off more than you can chew. S

Capital Ale House ($$-$$$)
623 E. Main St.
Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-

midnight; Friday-Saturday,11 a.m.-1:30 a.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-midnight

Innsbrook location:
4024-A Cox Road
Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-1:30 a.m.;Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-1:30 a.m.

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