by Lee Lawrence
I have to confess that I don't like beer. After years spent trying to cultivate an appreciation, I can only regard my aversion as a character flaw and a serious inconvenience on a sweltering summer day--or when dining at Jolly Pumpkin Cafe and Brewery. Fortunately, my husband and many of our friends don't share this flaw, and they were happy to pinch-hit for me during a review of Main Street's newest restaurant. An extension of Ron Jeffries' Dexter brewery, the Jolly Pumpkin brings food together with his handcrafted beers.
This past summer my husband and I walked across northern England, each evening arriving at a pub or an inn, each establishment featuring at least one "real ale." Although we repeatedly asked the meaning of the term (what, versus a "fake ale"?), we never received a satisfactory answer until we asked our waitress at the Jolly Pumpkin. My husband had marveled at those English brews, declaring the rich creamy texture and deep flavor to be reminiscent more of food than drink; to him, they felt alive. In fact, our waitress explained, real ales are unfiltered and unpasteurized, so the yeast is still alive, still "conditioning" the beer in the bottle or cask. Long, slow pulls on a hand pump bring the cask brews to the glass, making for a flatter, denser ale. JP's draft beers are brought up by compressed nitrogen, adding some effervescence.
My husband found that the Golden Dragon, that evening's cask ale, shared a similar fresh, smooth organic flavor with those he had enjoyed in England. Most of the draft beers also elicited glowing reviews. A friend found Bam Biere, Jolly Pumpkin's signature brew, citrusy, refreshing, and nicely hoppy. Another, who tried the sampler--an incredible value at $7 for five choices--preferred the Diabolical IPA as richer and rounder than the Bam Biere or the Siren Amber Ale, but others at the table thought the IPA exceedingly bitter. Even I enjoyed the Chocolate Stout, which was chewy
and pleasantly bitter, with a delicious roasted coffee/chocolate background. The Noel de Calabaza also surprised me, tasting fruity, green, and almost winey. Another night, a bottled beer, Baudelaire Ale Absurd, with 8.5 percent alcohol, was the crowd favorite, while the group found the gluten-free draft, chosen by a beer lover newly diagnosed as sensitive, overly hoppy and bitter.
The Jolly Pumpkin's wood bar, bench seats, and wainscoting are warm and attractive, and the light fixtures--Moroccan-inspired glass pendants and kitchen-art chandeliers--give a whimsical touch. Family and travel photos and large renditions of the strange labels that adorn Jolly Pumpkin's bottled beers litter the long walls. High ceilings and hard surfaces mean the restaurant can become very noisy on a busy night, but the overall feeling is congenial and friendly.
One menu, consisting of appetizers, sandwiches, pizzas, and salads, serves both lunch and dinner. (Some portions are smaller at lunch, with prices correspondingly lower.) Entree specials expand the choices at both meals. Although the food is not inexpensive, the quality is generally high, and the portions are generous. However, perhaps because the restaurant is so busy, the kitchen's execution is uneven, occasionally very good, frequently fine, but too often lackluster or unfortunate and sometimes simply forgetful.
Appetizers offered just such a mix of delicious and not-so-wonderful. Grilled oysters with spiced butter were lovely--briny and piquant. Farmer's Fritto, a tempura-dipped fried seasonal vegetable, featured butternut squash the evening we sampled it. Delicately crispy outside, meltingly sweet inside, the squash fries were smashingly good and utterly addictive dipped in the spicy mayonnaise accompaniment. The Truffled Fries were almost as tasty, the aioli on the side simply gilding the lily. As a lover of most things fried, however, I was disappointed by the Tofu Cracklings, thin leaves of tofu which apparently had been dried, then fried, and served with a chili dipping sauce. Drying only concentrated the tofu's intrinsic flavorlessness, while frying gave it the texture of corrugated cardboard. We couldn't find any of the promised cashews in this dish, but we greedily mopped up the delicious dipping sauce. The Gardener's Snackboard, a cheese plate garnished with roasted and marinated vegetables, was not worth the investment. The roasted yellow beets were earthy and sweet, but the cheeses--a cheddar, Swiss, and blue--were hardly memorable, and the marinated fennel was watery and utterly devoid of flavor.
Pizzas continued the uneven trend. The first time we tried the Truffle Pizza it was perfect, a thin crispy crust topped with a nice ratio of shiitakes, goat cheese, mozzarella, parmesan, a drizzle of truffle oil, and a handful of dressed arugula. The second time, however, the pizza was underbaked and overloaded, resulting in a gloppy mess. Our other two choices shared the unfortunate combo of soft crusts and piled-on toppings. At least the Fire and Smoke Pizza, featuring chipotle tomato sauce, chicken, roasted peppers, and smoked mozzarella, had zest. The Mediterranean Pizza, a blend of unsalted bland roasted eggplant, herbed goat cheese, preserved lemon, and kalamata olives, had none.
A friend and I found the JP Burger, a patty of grass-fed ground beef topped with Cambozola cheese, sauteed cremini mushrooms, bacon, and tomato, nicely cooked to medium rare as ordered, but characteristically dry and dense. Although we support the animal welfare and environmental and health concerns that favor grass-fed over grain-fed beef, our palates still craved the juicy fattiness of the latter. Another night the Sweet and Spicy Cobia Sandwich was wonderful, a baguette filled with a pan-seared, perfectly cooked fish filet, sambal mayonnaise, and shredded carrot-daikon pickle. The Porchetta Sandwich would have been wonderful if the kitchen had not forgotten to salt the meat. Without seasoning, the pork, though beautifully roasted and juicy, lacked savor, and the bun came to the table without the promised salsa verde, fennel sauerkraut, and spinach. A pile of tasty thin fries and a flavorless zucchini pickle accompanied all the sandwiches.
Although my friends and I liked the idea of the Grilled Romaine Salad, it proved to be an odd mix of disparate ingredients. The "potato croutons," very cheesy mashed potato croquettes, didn't blend well with the dried figs and toasted walnuts; the grilled chicken breast was perfectly cooked, but the roasted garlic dressing was rather bland. More successful was the Asian Layered Salad, a light combination of rice noodles, shredded vegetables and herbs, cashews, and cubed tofu in a ginger-lime dressing.
Specials also pleased and disappointed. One evening both my husband and my brother ordered a walleye special. Both perfectly pan-braised, they arrived dressed in a cider reduction and accompanied by a sweet potato puree and roasted Brussels sprouts. My husband thought the dish overly sweet; my brother found it wonderful. In both cases it was well executed. Another night I had a fine plate of pork tenderloin with squash spaetzle and spinach. Mushroom-parmesan quiche, a lunch special offered one quiet Saturday afternoon, came to the table blackened. I found it extraordinary that both the line cook and the waitress had thought it appropriate to serve the burnt slice.
Since portions were generous, we tried only a few desserts. The Pumpkin-Bay Pot de Creme was seasonal and fine, but the Chocolate Tasting with Seasonal Fruit paired squares of bitter chocolate with ill-matched red grapes and far-from-seasonal strawberries (pear slices would have been a better choice). Another night a chocoholic friend ordered the Vegan Chocolate Cake with chocolate coconut "ice cream," and all of us thought the cake unpalatable, the frozen coconut cream chalky and insipid.
In addition to its many beers, the Jolly Pumpkin offers wines from northern Michigan's Peninsula Cellars. The brewery distills its own spirits, which we didn't try, and offers a lengthy list of nonalcoholic drinks--some, like the Berry Mojito, refreshing and fruity; others, like the Basil Limeade, more pureed salad than beverage.
Jolly Pumpkin's management has clearly taken pains to educate its staff on all aspects of the menu and the brewing of beer. Not only can they explain real ale, nearly everyone--with the exception of one waiter who made it clear he was ready to have us depart late on a Friday night--was uniformly friendly, pleasant, and enthusiastic.
Jolly Pumpkin was slammed with customers almost every time I was there, so it's hardly surprising that the kitchen had a few problems in its execution. But I admire its relatively daring menu, and--despite the bewildering array of restaurants on Main Street--it stands out from the crowd. If the kitchen, which certainly has the potential, catches up to the beer and the service, the Jolly Pumpkin will be one of the most interesting places on the street.
Jolly Pumpkin Cafe and Brewery
311 S. Main, 913-2730
Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight, Sun. noon-11 p.m.
Appetizers $5-$15, entree salads and sandwiches $11-$14, pizza $10-$12, dinner specials $15-$22, desserts $5-$7. Salads, sandwiches, and pizzas 10-20 percent less at lunch.
[Originally published in January, 2010.]