When the editor of the Raleigh Public Record approached me recently about writing a monthly column on the local bar/restaurant scene, my first instinct was to turn him down. After all, the only newspaper experience I’ve had involves a Journalism 101 college course in which I fine-tuned my covert napping skills while appearing to be alert.
However, I’m not one to back down from a challenge, so I decided to give it a shot. While I don’t consider myself to be a food critic or beer snob of sorts (both of which seem to be rather abundant in the Triangle), I have a great deal of faith in my own opinions. And like any other red-blooded American, I’m convinced my personal judgments are concrete.
On a recent Saturday, I decided to embark upon my first research assignment. While everyone with a pulse rushed over to the new Raleigh Beer Garden, I decided to take the road less traveled and visit Clouds Brewing, which is quickly approaching its one-year anniversary.
On its website Clouds describes the menu as being “Contemporary America with a German flair”, so I opted to break out the big guns and invite a friend of mine who was born and raised in Bavaria. After all, who better to help me tackle a menu comprised of Schnitzel, Bratwurst, and Hefeweizens than a native German?
We arrived at Clouds around 12:30 on Saturday afternoon and were eventually greeted by one of the four staff members chit-chatting leisurely around the hostess stand. The restaurant seemed suspiciously empty, especially considering the prime lunch hour, but we assumed that might be in part to the novelty of the nearby Raleigh Beer Garden. Once we were finally seated on the outdoor patio, it took almost fifteen minutes for our server to appear at our table. Although he was a nice enough guy, he didn’t seem to know much about the menu, like what, exactly, was in the “German” potato salad, and failed to mention the daily specials.
After giving us a quick introduction of “the Downpour”, the self-serve beer wall featuring 10 rotating taps, our server handed us a couple of wristbands to electronically keep track of our beers. Among the choices on the beer wall, most were either of the IPA variety or fruit-based brews. As I wandered over to the bar to see what types of beers were available on tap, I was a bit befuddled to see that most of the tap handles had been assembled backward.
In other words, to see the name of the beers I would have either had to lean over the bar to read them — a virtual accident waiting to happen — or would need to have memorized the general shapes of each of the 30 taps. Since the bartender was nowhere to be found, I ventured back to “the Downpour” and managed to pour myself a glass of the Foothills Dopplebock before returning to my table.
As we studied the menu, my sidekick found issue with more than a few of the “German” items available, most notably the fact that the Bratwurst was served with barbecue sauce and thus necessitating a mustard hijacking from a less deserving dish on the menu.
We started by ordering the Cranberry Brie appetizer, for which I initially had high hopes but was ultimately disappointed. The Brie tasted store-bought and bland, and the cranberry sauce contained more sugar than anything else. After one bite each of the appetizer, we quietly pushed the dish aside without another word.
Our entrees arrived shortly thereafter: the Bavarian Grilled Cheese for me and the Bratwurst Platter, sans barbecue sauce, for my partner in crime. While my sandwich was little more than melted cheese and bratwurst on a stale bread roll, I must say I greatly enjoyed my side of “German” potato salad (the ingredients of which are still a mystery).
Perhaps the greatest mystery — to me, at least — is the fact that “Clouds Brewing” is not yet technically a brewery. While I have heard that the state and federal licensing requirements for breweries can be a tough undertaking, I think I would be more inclined to forgive the “brewing” moniker had it been something more generic, such as “brew-pub”.
According to the information on their website, the actual brewery is still under construction and not due to open for another couple of months. The legality of calling an establishment a “brewery” long before it begins brewing beer is out of my scope of expertise, but I can’t help but find it a little puzzling. Talk about putting the cart before the horse. Maybe I should open my own vineyard and just resell bottom-shelf bottles of wine from Harris Teeter. I’ll plant a few grape seeds in the backyard just to make everything seem legitimate.
Overall, the experience at Clouds Brewing was decent. I can appreciate the fact that they have a good variety of beers from which to choose, provided you can read backward tap handles or learn to pour your own beer from the infamous “Downpour.”
The food was somewhat hit-or-miss, although the German potato salad was definitely wunderbar, and the service was agreeable, so long as you’re not in a hurry. Although I wouldn’t be entirely opposed to revisiting this establishment at some point, I plan on having my hands full with new (and maybe not so new) bars and restaurants to size up for your reading pleasure in the near future. Stay tuned.