THERE'S AN UNDERLYING confidence to a restaurant called the Groaning Board—the name could obviously connote a table full of food or be a term for a feast... but hopefully it's not signifying diners groaning in misery, right? Confidence, however, isn't a problem for this relatively new addition to South Waterfront's array of gradually improving dining choices: Their mission, after all, is to "inspire our guests to rediscover the meaning of spectacular food," which is on the Muhammad Ali level of statements of intent.
Chef Cory Chunn, who did a stint as Jenn Louis' chef de cuisine at Lincoln, has brought some of that precise, ingredient-driven cooking with him—though here it's channeled into a gastropub environment. The result is a large menu of roughly 35 dishes, ranging from comfort food to burgers to more sophisticated entrées. In a way it's a canny move, catering to locals who want drinks and bar snacks as well as those who want a full-on dining experience without having to trudge downtown... but the idea is not without some problems.
Though billed as a pub, it feels more like a hotel bar, one that fits in with the shiny new frontier that is South Waterfront. It's comfortable (plush, even), but overdesigned, unless you're into light bulbs stuck in industrial piping and chairs hanging from the ceiling. There's a solid list of local beers on draft (from $5), a smart cocktail selection ($10 each), and a decent wine list that starts at $18 and peaks at $120—another indication that this isn't just any old pub. There are bargains to be had on Wednesdays, though, when any bottle over $30 is half price.
Of the bar snacks, the fried pickles ($9) stood out—green beans, carrots, and radishes had a lovely pickled sweetness and were served with a smoky aioli. The hot chicken bits ($8), a mild version of Nashville hot chicken, too, were nicely deep fried and carried just enough heat to avoid alienating the average customer. The lamb meatballs ($10) were good comfort food and worked well when heartily dipped in the accompanying cumin yogurt—but portions aren't large, so beware... it's easy to rack up a bill.
Over a couple of visits the most consistent performers, and the best value, were the salads (confusingly placed in the "small bites" menu category, when in fact they are huge). The wild lettuces with warm pancetta ($11) were bright, and enhanced with bites of date, pecan, and a remarkable Belper Knolle cheese. This was a dish that inched toward spectacular. Similarly, the spring lettuces ($11) with whipped chèvre and shaved vegetables were light and fresh, while the roasted beet salad ($10) was the outstanding dish: The sweet flavors of the beets and squash puree were nicely balanced with crispy ham, bits of pistachio, and a mint salsa verde. Right here they could proclaim "mission accomplished" with everyone going home happy.
But there are entrées too, which were a bumpier experience. These tended to be split between traditional and more flamboyant fare, with mixed results. Take the pork and beef meat loaf ($21), which was nicely moist, with the meat flavors shining through—the problem came with the Brussels sprout, shallot, and bacon sauce, which was underwhelming. It felt a long way from "spectacular" and more in the realm of an in-law trying (but failing) to impress with something fancy at Thanksgiving.
The ling cod ($24) was full of promise, a large dish with purgatorio beans, roasted onion, and oranges—except that even though it was fun to explore, the dish refused to jell. There wasn't that "perfect bite" when all the flavors align to give a sense of the chef's vision, and the protein felt more like a bit performer than the star of the show. At these prices, there are more polished options downtown, just a short streetcar ride away.
Desserts were a bit Jekyll and Hyde, with a lavender blueberry sundae ($8) that was right on the money, while the s'mores ($8) was a dish deconstructed to the point of being mush on a plate. Rich and overly sweet, a six-year-old would probably love it.
To be honest, the menu is so large there may be more hidden gems within (I didn't even get to the "between bread" section). But I'm always wary of a kitchen that offers too many options rather than focusing on core competencies. There's good cooking here, but it's scattered—and rather than promises of "spectacular," I'd be happier with "nicely done across the board."
Tues-Fri 10 am-2 pm, 4-10 pm, Sat 4-10 pm, Sun 10 am-2 pm, 4-9 pm. Closed Mon. Happy Hour: Tues-Sat 4-6 pm, 9-10 pm, Sun 4-6 pm.