Suds and Grubs
I suppose, on a broiling summer’s day, the idea of a draft-beer float — yup, beer and ice cream — might appeal to some people. I mean, if a scoop of frozen custard is delicious in a glass of root beer, why not a more intoxicating concoction — say, vanilla ice cream with Young’s Chocolate Stout? At the three-month-old Yard House at the Legends in Wyandotte County, customers really do order the robust stout à la mode, as listed on both the beer and the dessert menus. Ditto the other frosty treat, vanilla ice cream in a glass of Lindeman’s Framboise, a raspberry-flavored Belgian beer that’s so fruity, it’s best sipped as an aperitif.
At the California-based Yard House restaurants, the food selection is considerably smaller than the beer menu — that’s this saloon concept’s novelty. Yard House claims to have “the world’s largest selection of draft beer.” Lest novice diners miss this point, the front door opens into a seemingly endless hallway with glass windows exposing an equally lengthy space stacked with shiny metal beer kegs. Tapped into each keg is a tube leading to a pipe that feeds into one of 14 thick metal conduits that soar over the dining room like a sculptural installation. These tubes, dramatically illuminated with amber bulbs, lead to 140 spigots at the boxcar-sized stainless steel bar.
Beer, with or without ice cream, is king at the Yard House, which is named for the skinny 36-inch glasses that were invented — according to restaurant legend, anyway — to “hand to stagecoach drivers back in the day when travel by horse-drawn carriage was common.” It’s hard for me to imagine a carriage driver wrestling with the reins of his team and a 3-foot-tall glass of ale, but the Yard House is sticking to its story.
Because modern drinkers drive cars instead of horse-powered wagons, the Yard House doesn’t actually serve frosty, yard-long glasses of beer. “It’s a lot of liquor, so there are liability issues about that,” explained our server, Kayla, on the night that Bob, Melissa and I came to dine in the mammoth restaurant. “But we do have half-yard glasses.”
Indeed they do, but the vessels are not for sloppy drunks: The Yard House adds a $10 charge to your bill if you break one. I pondered that as I sat and watched a twentysomething couple in matching tank tops awkwardly swill brew from a couple of those glasses — they’re taller than you think — in a Rolling Rock reverie while their unsupervised toddlers wandered around the busy dining room.
“I see they have their priorities straight,” Melissa said mockingly. She was impressed by the restaurant’s vast array of beers, everything from Black Sheep Monty Python ale to Pabst Blue Ribbon. “There’s even a beer called Hollywood Blonde,” said Melissa, who used to be a Hollywood blonde at 20th Century Fox.
Not everyone in the place was hoisting a brew, though. There were some wine drinkers at the table to my left and a lady sipping a refreshing-looking mojito in the next booth.
Finding the perfect beverage is the easy part. Choosing judiciously from the food menu is a little riskier. My friend Christine had warned me about this; she had dined at the Yard House with friends one night, and of the half-dozen appetizers they’d shared, three were excellent but the other three weren’t.
Our trio was lucky. We loved the superb Korean beef short ribs, tender and perfectly grilled with garlic and brown sugar (and sided with a large scoop of white rice) as well as the succulent grilled artichoke, served with a garlic aïoli and a pile of house-made potato chips. We shared one of the big salads, too — a fresh and crunchy chopped salad with a punchy gazpacho dressing — but had to divide it at the table ourselves.
“The kitchen won’t split dishes,” Kayla explained, “for presentation reasons.”
“This place is absolutely wonderful,” Bob said after making the wisest (and most expensive) culinary choice of the night: a gorgeously juicy 14-ounce strip with a mound of crispy garlic-herb shoestring fries. I snuck a few but was afraid to mess up his plate. You know, for presentation reasons.
Melissa and I were less ecstatic about our dinners. Her shrimp rice bowl was a perfectly ordinary stir-fried jumble of rice, vegetables and minuscule shrimp; it wasn’t even visually attractive. Neither was my bowl of macaroni and cheese, which sounded enticing on the menu: “roasted chicken breast, applewood smoked bacon, wild mushrooms, cheddar and parmesan cheese, white truffle oil.” Maybe if it hadn’t been buried under a blanket of toasted bread crumbs and the sauce hadn’t been so runny, the dish might have lived up to my expectations. But I’ve had better versions made with far less fancy ingredients.
We were still up for dessert, which the servers insisted were really made in the Yard House’s kitchen. I believe it — they were more homey than elegant, even when billed otherwise. The crème brûlée topped with a crust of caramelized bananas tasted like banana pudding, and the lemon soufflé cake had more in common with my Aunt Jeanette’s no-frills lemon cake (the recipe was right on the pudding box) than anything remotely resembling a soufflé.
When I returned a few nights later with Erik, Jennifer and the Yard House-loving Bob, they gave high praise to the salads they shared, though the slices of “crisp” pear on the walnut-pear salad were a shade tough. I had warned my group not to order anything too exotic, but they ignored me. It was hard not to, because most of the entrées on this menu are inspired by the culinary styles of China, Italy and Hawaii.
In theory, anyway. Jennifer laughed and said her parmesan-crusted chicken tasted “just like my mom’s Shake ‘n Bake.” My mom’s, too. Erik’s luscious-looking heap of citrus-glazed orange-peel chicken wasn’t much different from any variation of this dish at a Chinese-American restaurant, but it was twice as expensive. And my “spicy” Thai-chicken pizza, sprinkled with crunchy macadamia nuts, was more sweet than hot.
As usual, Bob took a pass on the international stuff and found the perfect thing: a thick, juicy angus beef burger slathered with béarnaise sauce and sprinkled with fried onions.
Erik had polished off two glasses of pale yellow Delerium Tremens during dinner, but the smooth Belgian ale wasn’t nearly as head-spinning as the sweets we shared, particularly Erik’s massive sundae made with Kona coffee ice cream, crushed Oreo cookies, nuts and gobs of real whipped cream. Bob got downright woozy over a thick wedge of caramel-splashed macadamia-nut cheesecake. (He wound up taking most of it home.) Jennifer’s comforting hot cobbler, made with slices of peaches and apples and baked under a crunchy pastry crust, had her feeling warm all over.
I took a couple of bites from everyone’s dessert and was perfectly happy and a couple of ounces lighter, maybe, than if I had ordered a slice of chocolate soufflé cake for myself. After all, you don’t need to drink a six-pack to get a beer belly when peach-apple cobbler will do the trick just as effectively. And at the Yard House, you can have both. À la mode.