Our "house tapas," which we have ordered out of perverse curiosity more than hunger, arrive: a hard-boiled egg wrapped in a thin layer of Thai lemongrass-mint pork sausage, then breaded and deep fried. It has been halved, drizzled with ranch dressing and a faintly flavored chipotle mayonnaise, and placed on a bed of deep-fried potato flakes. Someone has tipped a bag of Ore-Ida hash browns into the fryer and scooped them out only after they have turned mahogany. A solitary, frail stem of cilantro has wafted over from a Vietnamese restaurant to land on top.
"This is stoner food," exclaims my friend Terence, whom I have brought to Walnut Creek to share my meal at the Pyramid Alehouse Brewery & Restaurant, which joined Pyramid's Seattle and Berkeley brewpubs at the beginning of May. "This is two chefs sitting around the kitchen at two a.m. getting baked and coming up with dishes."
Stoned chefs with big appetites. Our other "appetizer" is a twelve-inch soup bowl piled high with what appears to be half a bag of prewashed spinach, raw walnuts, diced tomato, and shredded carrots in an acidic oregano-basil vinaigrette. We wondered why, when we ordered two appetizers and two entrées to split between the two of us, the waiter looked puzzled. He asked us if he should order the salad and tapas first, then wait a while before bringing our pizza and fish and chips.
As he left, I asked Terence, "Does he not get the concept of courses?" Terence shrugged. Then the gargantuan "first" course appears, and I feel like the fool.
Maybe the dishes are sized big to feed the crowd here, many of whom appear to be strapping thirty-year-old men seated in front of pitchers of beer. Almost every table and booth in the restaurant is filled, as are all the seats in the back garden and the stools at the long raised bar tables facing the sports bar. There are also a lot of families with kids. These are all people who really enjoyed their high school years, I think. Terence and I raise our voices to hear each other above the din.
He sips a pleasantly caramelly Pyramid Porter and I nurse a pint of creamy, yeasty Pyramid Special Draft Pale Ale. Most of the entrées on the sizable menu go well with drinks: hamburgers, pizzas, dinner salads, fish and chips, and sandwiches. The "Brewer's Plates" section gets more ambitious, with steaks and grilled seafood, some of which are made with Pyramid beers.
We fill the remaining third of our stomachs with a Mediterranean pizza, a puffy, browned twelve-inch round with barely melted mozzarella, tomato, black olive, snipped fresh basil, red onions, and feta. It's nothing worth writing home about, but it's edible -- which is only true for about half of our Pyramid Combo Platter, deep-fried potato wedges and a mix of fried seafood. Everything has stayed in the fryer until it has become a deep, deep, dark brown. We concentrate on the calamari and the oddly appealing battered smoked salmon slices. But there's no hope for the tough prawns and overcooked halibut.
Appetizers start out all right on my second visit, and my dining companions, whom I have warned about the food, start looking at me funny. The Caesar dressing is thick and garlicky, and though the romaine leaves look like they've spent a couple hours out of the fridge, they still have a bit of crunch to them. The buffalo drummettes in a tangy, spicy coating couldn't be moister. Cornmeal-crusted calamari steak strips are lukewarm but not too chewy, and the hoisin-barbecued riblets -- dressed in a complex, well-put-together sauce -- lick off the bone. Even the accompanying horseradish-spiked coleslaw isn't half bad.
Though only half the industrial-sized restaurant is full this time, it takes a while for the appetizers to come. This gives me enough time to embark on my plan to taste Pyramid's food as it was meant to be tasted: while drunk. By the time our entrées arrive -- forty minutes after our spritely waitress has cleared away the appetizer plates -- I've downed a couple of pints of thin but toasty Brown Ale plus a tasting glass of hoppy, rich Scotch Ale. I'm well into my first pint of the Draft Pale Ale.
For entertainment, we watch the table next to us get angrier and angrier. Finally I introduce myself and ask what's happening. "We've been sitting here with half our entrées for twenty minutes," their spokeswoman tells me, "and the rest of the food hasn't come. We got up to talk to the assistant manager, and he wouldn't come over to the table -- he just sent the waiter to us. When we made the waiter bring the manager over, he said that some nights his waitstaff were just off, and that he'd give us fifty percent off and fifty percent in gift certificates. Next time we came in we should ask for him specifically so we don't have to put up with the incompetent staff. We told him we're not coming back, so he'd better comp the entire meal." They borrow our ketchup rather than waiting for the waiter to show up.
One table over, some guys write "We Need Beer!" on an Etch-A-Sketch they somehow have with them. They hold it up for a good ten minutes before their server -- who has a whopping three tables in his section -- notices it. My designated driver, who has run restaurants the size of Pyramid, fumes while watching the manager chatting with a couple of off-duty staff at the bar as chaos threatens to overtake his restaurant.
But the larger problem lies with the kitchen; our waitress is on the ball, serving our third round of beer as our entrées finally arrive. Here is what we like: 1) The battered potato wedges with the hamburger kick ass. 2) The pan-fried halibut is plump and moist inside its crust of ground barley and pecans. 3) Once we send it back to the kitchen to be cooked past rare, the pork "porterhouse" with spiced apples and onions has good flavor.
The list of what we don't like is much longer. The burger is overcooked, underseasoned, and overwhelmed by the bun. A slab of meatloaf slathered in tomato sauce doesn't make much of an impression, but the withered, long-roasted baby potatoes it came with do. The pulled pork on a barbecue pork sandwich is rich and soft, but the sugary sauce can't flavor both the meat and a massive, fluffy bun. Both the pork and the halibut come with summer squash and julienned carrots that have barely touched a pan.
Some of the faces at our table are a little grim by the meal's end. But the beer does have its intended effect -- after five beers I can't really care about the food.
Pyramid is the gourmet equivalent of Chili's (just one block over and a bit cheaper, by the way). At least the beer is well-brewed and reasonably priced. If you have a couple of pints and a few fried appetizers, you'll enjoy yourself. Or, as Terence suggests, smoke a little hooch before you go. You and the cooks may experience a mind-meld.