Promises, Promises

Some menus read better than they taste. With its green chili, buffalo fajitas and brown-ale chicken, The Rock Bottom Brewery's is one such document: ambitious, clever, well-matched to the cavernous new watering hole's house-made beers and Rocky Mountain feel -- and full of unrealized promise. If only everything were as good as the first dish on the list, a molten and mellow asiago cheese dip laced with scallion and sun-dried tomato.... But everything is not.

In the great Houston brewpub derby of 1994, the kitchen at the Denver-based Rock Bottom falls somewhere in between the Village Brewery's humdrummery and the more inspired moments of the Houston Brewery just up Richmond Avenue. Three visits yielded a few dishes I'd be happy to eat with a beer, but nothing that would bring me back because I simply had to have it, and certainly nothing as compelling as the Houston Brewery's robust sausage platter or lively chili-rubbed salmon.

Rock Bottom's shortcomings are mostly those of conviction: although the menu subscribes to the notion that spicy food goes well with beer, what winds up on those infernal pink and blue Fiestaware plates seems pretty tame. Maybe the Denver palate requires less assertive flavors than Texans crave. That might explain why tortilla-wrapped pescado con chili verde -- a giant crepelike affair stuffed with seafood and green chili -- tastes surprisingly anemic, with none of the gumption its Mexicanesque name implies.

Then again, maybe Denver's idea of Mexican/Southwestern food is beyond our understanding. Why else would a kitchen afflict perfectly nice, lean buffalo fajitas with the kind of sweet marinade that makes the meat seem candied? Or serve them with pasty guacamole that seems to have had congress with well-used athletic socks, so peculiar was its taste on a recent evening? In a town particular about its quesadillas, Rock Bottom's tomato-basil version is a tough sell: more like a brittle, crackerbread pizza with basil overload, its salsa the sort of thing that would seem at home on spaghetti. And I don't even want to think about pesto shrimp flautas smothered with orange salsa.

One of the nuttier-sounding items here is actually among the best of show -- deep-fried mango and black bean wontons bound with a discreet melt of white cheese; it's an oddly wonderful play of crisp and savory, soft and sweet. Along with a cask-conditioned brown ale, those wontons could keep me happy for as much time as it took to count all the species of light fixture in this saloonlike, paneled room. Milky deco stalactites; industrial lamps; kraft-papered lanterns; verdigris chandeliers... I stopped counting at eight, and I hadnÕt even taken the front bar and back pool room into account.

Filling the tables and upholstered booths that break up this enormous space is a crowd that is young, corn-fed and multicultural. Over here are families with college kids home for the holidays; over there groups of male-bonders; and there a pair of scrubbed-grungy twentysomethings eye-locking soulfully over tall tumblers of stout, the well-mannered bitterness of which is tempered by a faintly sweet undercurrent. Like all of Rock Bottom's beers, the stout is best consumed in its off-the-menu cask-conditioned form; the flavors are fuller in these unfiltered brews, because they're warmer and less carbonated that the brewery's regular versions -- versions that, to my mind, seem unfocused and pale-tasting.

Alas, pale-tasting describes more than a few of the dishes here, too. A perfectly decent sauteed chicken breast gets a Big Horn Brown Ale sauce of surprisingly little character; even its "woodland" mushrooms are bland, and the crisp, politically correct vegetable medley that comes with it is no particular cause for joy. The optional rice pilaf? One step removed from the boxed variety. Baked potato? Strictly standard, with a stiff little sphere of butter substitute perched ominously on top.

I'm still trying to figure out how the kitchen could bleed so much flavor from the Jack Daniels-Gorgonzola sauce that comes with its tenderloin steak; two plus two in this instance equals three. The filet itself is black-peppery and grilled blue-rare if you want, with a surprise package of crunchy, half-cooked garlic cloves tucked inside; they'd be a swell idea if only they were roasted, as the menu promises.

So what to order here besides the asiago dip and the East-West wontons? Mahogany-hued onion soup anchored by the house stout. A provocative version of fish and chips: small logs of alder-smoked salmon, beer-battered and fried, each bite a cheerful contradiction to your notions about fried fish. Too bad the curly french fries alongside are inert, ghostly pretenders to genuine potatohood. And too bad the miniature slices of beer bread with that onion soup are so cakelike,

so suffused with the metallic flavor of baking powder.
All of this is rushed out of the kitchen with great dispatch. Perhaps too great, because side starches like beans and rice tend to arrive tepid and finish stone cold. Never mind. Just order a monumental wedge of the unlikely sounding stout cheesecake for dessert -- flecked with cheddar cheese, it is crumbly and improbably delicious. Avoid the Mile-High Apple Pie, though: way too much cinnamon plus a jillion half-baked Granny Smith apples do not a happy combination make.

The Rock Bottom bottom line? This is a pleasant enough place to sit and drink a beer if you don't expect the food to be as serious as the menu. The booths are cozy; the eager-beaver, oxford-shirted staff amusingly chatty; the mock-ice-house and terrace in back inviting during good weather. You can also get in a little shopping at the in-house boutique, where such must-have items as Rock Bottom boxer shorts are on sale. And the view is quintessential Houston: an artificial body of water that had a short life as Lake Longhorn before its namesake restaurant went belly up. Now -- landscaped to a fare-thee-well, slightly murky and sporting a few bits of uncosmetic foam -- it drowses at the foot of a giant mine shaft with a colossal beer vat standing guard. Long live Richmond Avenue.

The Rock Bottom Brewery, 6111 Richmond Avenue, 974-BREW.

Rock Bottom:
asiago cheese dip, $6.25;
mango and black bean wontons, $5.50;
alder-smoked salmon fish and chips, $7.95;
stout cheesecake, $3.50

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