Roger and Me
810 W. Lake St., Mpls.; (612) 825-3737
Hours: Daily 8:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m. Bowling $2.50 a game, shoe rental included.
Ten o'clock on a Friday night, and the problems were massing: I was dead-last in my party's bowling scores, another puzzling 3-10 split taunted me, and Roger wouldn't let me bring my glass of Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé onto the desperately worn orange carpet between the lanes and the seats. And white-haired, eagle-eyed Roger seemed to be growing ever more suspicious about the three lucky balls I needed to achieve the lowest bowling score in recorded history. And Roger--whose last name and title are Engmark and lane supervisor, respectively--was yelling at a friend of mine for some other mysterious infraction. Impossible bowling before me, stilling Champagne behind, and Roger! Roger! Roger!!! It was enough to make a girl take up pinball.
But then, a few days later, I learned that Roger's days at the BLB are numbered: "Roger has announced his plans to retire next year," owner Kim Bartmann told me. "He's been the pinsetter guy here for 20 years now, so we're desperately in search of a new Roger. Someone who will yell at people and try to alienate them, and thereby make them come back for more."
So now I'm just devastated. Just as Bartmann predicted, I can hardly imagine the BLB without Roger: He's a critical part of the experience, the plot twist that turns run-of-the-mill bowling into unpredictable drama. His departure will leave such a hole--well, it's almost enough to make a girl carry a Belgian beer up onto the wood just to draw a little old-fashioned scolding.
But I'm sentimental, not stupid, so I'll keep my Belgian beers away from the lanes, the better to admire their magnificence. Because, Roger aside, those Belgian beers are one of the most beguiling reasons to frequent the BLB. The bar has twenty-odd imported Belgian bottled beers, plus an American Belgian-style ale, plus another Belgian beer (or "tap wine") on tap--frankly, it's a better selection than you'd find in many bars in Belgium.
This expansive list is the labor of love of BLB "beer guy" Randy Weeber, a man so passionate about Belgians, he has tracked down importers of rare beers and introduced them to local distributors: "A lot of what we have now is such new, such cutting-edge stuff," he gushes. "It's just so breathtaking it's actually frustrating, because people ask me to recommend something and I don't even know where to start."
Indeed, the good people of Flanders and Wallonia can do things with hops and malt that could bring you to tears. I nearly wept with gratitude one night over an enormous bottle of De Ranke's Guldenberg ($14.75), a vastly hoppy, gorgeously well-balanced, and utterly tasty blond ale made, according to the label, on weekends in West Flanders by a pair of friends named Nino and Guido.
But a wine bottle of beer is probably not the best place to begin if you've never tried the small-bubble, high-alcohol Belgian style. A better introduction is Rodenbach Red Ale ($6.25), a bright-red brew made from a blend of young beer matured for a few weeks in metal tanks, and aged beer mellowed for a few years in wood casks. The combination makes for a taste that's fruity, tart, acidic, sweet, and slightly metallic all at the same time--a Belgian party in your mouth.
Rodenbach Red is considered one of the best examples of West Flanders ale--and if you look carefully at the Bryant-Lake Bowl's list, you'll realize that it offers a definitive version of nearly every brewing style known to humanity. There's no more classic fruit lambic than Liefmans Kriekbier ($8.50), a dry, brown, acidic ale made with two sorts of cherries. There's no more typical sweet, malty, British old ale than Theakston's Old Peculier ($3.75); there's no more definitive Pilsner than flowery, beautifully bitter Pilsner Urquell (available on tap for $3.75 a pint, or $2 a half-pint).
The rest of the list serves as both a who's who of world beer (Guinness, Sapporo, Anchor porter, Paulaner Hefe Weizen) and a showcase of local stars (James Page, Summit, Point), not to mention a few little-known puzzlers: Sinebrychoff porter, from Helsinki; Aecht Schlenkeria Rauchbier Märzen, a "smoke beer" from Germany; and Coniston Bluebird Bitter--a beer that, according to the BLB menu, is available "at maybe one or two places west of the Mississippi." I've certainly never tried it before--though when I did, I thought it too flinty and thin to fall in love with. (Shows what I know: Coniston apparently wins rafts of awards at beer festivals.)
The only problem with this magnificent lineup is that it draws you away from the wine list, which is also a work of art. "We like to sell affordable wines that are really good," explains Bartmann. "We like to support small vineyards where they make great wines carefully--and we like to give the finger to restaurants that charge exorbitant prices for wines that aren't worth it." Case in point: Cline Cellars' 1997 zinfandel, a big, peppery, caramel-toned wine that inspires deep passion among oenophiles, yet sells here for a penny-pinching $18 a bottle, or $4.50 a glass.
Champagne shoppers will quickly notice that, even if you should be lucky enough to get your hands on a 1989 La Grande Dame Veuve Clicquot in a liquor store, you won't pay any less than the $125 the BLB (under)charges for a bottle. There are also two offerings from historic Champagne producer Billecarte-Salmon: Nonvintage brut, selling for $45, and Brut Rosé for $55, only a few dollars more than you'd pay in a liquor store. And that Brut Rosé is vibrant, vanilla-scented, and absolutely delicious--though I can't promise it will do much for your game when you're nursing a twenty-point shortfall.
Speaking of suckling unpleasant things, I have long been nursing an impression that the BLB does better with liquids than with solids. And sadly, my recent run of visits didn't change that. The very best thing I had for dinner was a nightly special of grilled sea bass served in a red curry sauce on a bed of basmati rice ($10.25); the sauce was potent and forthright, and the no-nonsense white rice perfectly set off the poles of tender fish and brisk curry. The grilled salmon ($10.25), a fillet served on a bed of rice tossed with corn, red bell peppers, and a hint of roasted poblano chile, is another simple, unfussy option that won't slow down your game later on.
I didn't observe any perfect frames among the list of appetizers, either. The highly spiced slivers of poultry that make up the grilled chipotle chicken fingers ($5.50) reminded me of the top of a salad looking for its bottom, and a smoked trout and goat-cheese quesadilla seemed overpriced at $8.75--after all, it's still just two tortillas and a scant handful of filling. The "sleeper" nachos ($7.75) were standard grocery-store chips loaded with cheese, beans, olives, and pickled jalapeños accompanied by the BLB's very good house salsa, sour cream, and guacamole--but they weren't anywhere near as tasty as about a billion other restaurant renditions I've sampled.
All told, I'd recommend grazing on greenery, for the BLB's salads are by and large very good. The mixed green salad ($3.25 for a small one, $6.25 for a behemoth) is an abundant, fresh-cut toss of lettuces, and the spinach salad ($3.50/$6.50) offers nice variety with its toppings of onion, feta, apple, and walnuts. The warm fig salad ($7.25) seems plagued by an identity crisis: One evening I liked the way the slightly bitter balsamic-vinegar reduction enhanced a few figs scattered on a bed of spinach. But on another occasion I received at least two pounds of hot, quartered figs smothering a pile of wilted spinach.
After closely watching other tables, I concluded that BLB regulars were mostly ordering sandwiches ($4.75 to $7.50) with sides of red, skin-on mashed potatoes ($1.75.) Yet after pushing some of the bland potatoes around my plate while nibbling on an unimpressive grilled Cheddar and tomato, I realized that the main attraction here was price.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that my judgment has been tainted by the BLB's spectacular beverages: I know full well that if I simply compared it to other bowling alleys, the place would come off looking like some kind of fantasy camp for foodies. Oh, who am I kidding? What do I know about bowlers? Here's where I can tell you that I lost the aforementioned game by a chasm of points, my only consolation coming when I went groping for my shoes and found a score sheet left under a bench. It said that "B" went ten frames and scored a whopping 18. 18! Ha. 18. Foolish B. What a maroon. 18.
And I felt great, what with all that Billecart coursing through my blood--until Roger noticed that I was putting my shoes on while still in the carpet area. Roger!!!
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