Friday night the Wife and I had planned to enjoy Charlotte’s Restaurant Week due to it ending on Sunday, but when the snow started falling as we left work we rethought our plan. We weren’t personally concerned about driving in the snow (we each learned to drive in the snow of the DC area), but knowing the Carolinians aren’t the best at it we wanted to avoid them at all costs. We decided to stay as close to home as possible.
So we headed over to the Red Lion Tavern in Ayrsley. We’ve been there a couple times before and have never been REALLY impressed, but we’re always hoping they’ll have an epiphany and move from mediocre to good.
One of my big complaints about the Red Lion is that, being a “tavern,” I expect the wait staff to embrace the fact that they are a beer-serving establishment, and subsequently, know the beer list. At a minimum, a beer menu should be available. When I first asked about what kinds of beers were on tap, our waiter said, “You know, Guinness, Bass, New Castle…” as if I was supposed to be able to complete the list. I gave him a little time, though, and he rattled through an extensive list of beers including Dogfish Head 60-minute IPA and Budvar. The Wife, having recently discovered she really liked the Dogfish Head 60, and I, being a fan of the Budvar, settled on these two beers for ourselves, respectively.
We looked over the menu, which has an extensive list of interesting and different fare. While pub food is absolutely on the menu, it’s located at the bottom of the menu, in its own section. Some of the entrees included shrimp and grits, bangers and mash, and fish and chips.
We started with the crispy brie appetizer, served with apricot marmalade and pecans. I expected some kind of lightly-fried brie with some baguette, but indeed it was just the lightly-fried brie in the marmalade with a light garnish of whole pecan (halves) and mixed greens. Without the benefit of individual serving plates, we were forced to share our appetizer from the same plate. The dripping-warm brie was a little awkward to eat from the shared plate, but it WAS dripping-warm, lightly-fried brie, so you can imagine it was wonderful.
For our entrees, I settled on the fish and chips, feeling it was somehow appropriate for the British-style pub. The Wife got the Mac n’ Cheese with chorizo and roasted tomatoes. We’ve both had the mac n’ cheese from Red Lion, and it’s been hit or miss. The texture has been nice, but sometimes the flavors have been a little off, and not as rich as they probably should have been. The chorizo has been underflavored, and has really only added to the texture of the meal. Being suckers for mac n’ cheese, though, she tried it again (plus she wanted to review it for the blog!).
In fact, that would be our biggest complaint about the food at Red Lion; the food is inconsistent. It seems like the food you order is completely subject to the emotions of the chefs while it’s being made. For example, I once went and had the shepherd’s pie. It was wonderful. The light fluffy blanket of mashed potatoes kept the warm pea and meat insides of the pie warm, and it was remarkably-well flavored. It was so good, that the next time I came back, I had it again, and instead of mashed potatoes, it was scalloped potatoes. Scalloped potatoes in shepherd’s pie?!? Aside from the fact that the menu says, clearly, mashed potatoes, scalloped potatoes just aren’t in the shepherd’s pie recipe. It seems to me the same sin as if it came out with turkey instead of beef. It’s not that the scalloped potatoes weren’t good. It’s that a wholesale substitution in the recipe is simply inappropriate.
The fish and chips came out, and looked pretty much like I expected. The fries were excellent, and the fish once again reaffirmed why fish really isn’t my thing. It certainly didn’t taste bad. It also met the general expectation of a large fish filet breaded and fried. The flavor was, however, lacking. It didn’t really taste like anything, as far as I could tell. I put lemon juice on it, and that just made it more soggy (along with the grease). Still nothing really to speak of. I’m not sure if there’s something wrong with me, but I just don’t get fish and chips.
The Wife’s mac n’ cheese was, once again, different from anything we’d seen before. The cheese was clearly more rich and flavorful than previous versions, and it had the look of an artificial cheese (think Cheez-wiz or Velveeta). When you tasted it, though, it didn’t have the TASTE of an artificial cheese, but of an authentic cheese sauce. Overall, we considered the new cheese a significant upgrade on the entree as a whole. We were, however, put off by the fresh tomatoes on the entree. The entree was advertised with roasted tomatoes, and previous editions had some kind cooked tomatoes in it. You can imagine how fresh and juicy tomatoes are in the Carolinas in January. Also, again, the sausage was ground up (like ground beef cooked in a pan), whereby it had previously been served as slices of links in the entree. Overall, the taste had been upgraded, but the entree itself had the Red Lion stamp of inconsistency.
After dinner, I heard the waiter at the table next to us stumble uncoordinated through the beer list with a couple that
just sat down. I couldn’t help but notice that Sweetwater 420 was on HIS beer list, but in hindsight was conspicuously missing from the beer list Taylor had regurgitated. The nearby waiter also seemed a bit confused about the kind of Dogfish Head beer on tap. For the record, I don’t see this as an indictment on the wait staff, but rather an indictment on the restaurant management that doesn’t place appropriate emphasis on the things that I perceive to be key to their target market. Once again, when I go to a “tavern,” “pub,” or “brewery,” I expect the beer list to be a prominent selling point to the reason I should patronize the establishment. Having no beer list, and a wait staff that can’t tell me what beers are available, doesn’t help build the credibility that you are a legitimate “tavern,” or “gastro pub” (which Red Lion also laid claim to… I wonder if The Liberty knows that…).
Overall, I felt the Red Lion met my every expectation, unfortunately. As I said, we’ve been waiting for them to really endeavor to become a great little restaurant, as Ayrsley really doesn’t have a GREAT restaurant; only a handful of fine restaurants. Sadly, though, the high prices don’t justify the inconsistent food, and the wait staff demonstrates the Red Lion far from qualifies as a true tavern.