October 15, 2013

Taste Bud: Rewind to Rich O’s

Many years ago, my good buddy Ben asked me, “Have you ever been to Rich O’s?”

I hadn’t. So he took me. And while it is now better known as New Albanian Brewing Company, Rich O’s will always be dear to me, for many reasons. And the truth is, even though the name has officially gone by the wayside, it’s still the same place: pretty much the same menu, same décor, same tables, same neo-communist vibe.

I don’t get to the New Albany pub, which sits adjacent to sister business Sportstime Pizza just off Grant Line, as often these days as I used to, but I made a return visit recently in search of two of my favorite menu items: Kate’s Stuffed Mushrooms and those signature breadsticks.

I went on a Saturday afternoon to find Rich O’s — er, sorry, the New Albanian public house — nearly empty, which is rare. Typically I go on a Friday or Saturday evening and end up waiting for a table. But it was serene on this day, giving me plenty of time to study the chalkboard bearing the guest tap selection and to take in the quiet ambience.

My first move, of course, was to get a beer; on this trip, the choice was New Albanian-brewed Pickman’s Pale Ale, a delicious dry-hopped APA. My second move was to order Kate’s Stuffed Mushrooms. At $5.30 per order, one can argue they are a tad pricey — my order consisted of five mushroom caps of varying sizes, all gutted and stuffed with a blend of cream cheese, parmesan and seasoning. Yep, that’s a little over a buck apiece per mushroom cap.

But the fact is, these things have always fascinated me with their simplicity. It doesn’t seem as if they should be so tasty and addictive, and yet they absolutely are. They are baked to the point that the cheese browns on top and the mushroom caps get just a tad chewy. Whatever the folks at Rich O’s (sorry!) do, these things become irresistible.

And once they’re placed before you, the question then becomes, “How do I eat them?” The temptation is to pick them up like a finger food, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. That cheese wants badly to slide, and you don’t ever want to lose your cheese.

The flavor blend of the cheese and the mushroom produces almost a smoky flavor. It’s difficult to describe, and therein lies the attraction. The mushroom is earthy, while the cheese is a bit tangy, and the overall experience just seems very, well, natural somehow.

(By the way, where do the mushroom stems go? Are they discarded? Do they wind up on someone’s pizza or in a salad? Seems this could have been the plot for a lost “Seinfeld” episode.)

The next item on my to-eat list was an order of breadsticks — or bread bats, as I’ve heard them called — and my old standby for dipping is the nacho cheese. Ah, but in recent years, New Albanian (see? I didn’t call it Rich O’s) has added a beer cheese, which means I now have to get two dipping sauces. Life used to be so simple.

If you’ve ever had the breadsticks at New Albanian, you probably already know the ropes, but if not, here it is: When the yeasty, huge logs of bread are brought to your table, you must not touch them right away. Why? Because they are always extremely hot and need a few moments to cool. That’s just the way it is, and it hasn’t changed in the 20-plus years I’ve been a customer. This only increases the anticipation for the first savory bite.

Now that we’ve gotten that piece of advice out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff: These breadsticks are cooked until crispy on the outside, and they are always soft and fluffy on the inside. They’re perfect for dipping because they hold firm, and yet the soft inside soaks up whatever dip you’ve chosen (yes, you can also get tomato sauce, pesto, barbecue sauce, garlic butter or ranch, but the cheeses rule).

The beer cheese is spicy, and the spice blends nicely with the slight sharpness of cheese. It really is the perfect dipping sauce if you’re having a hoppy ale. The nacho cheese, meanwhile, is thick and gooey, and it packs a spicy wallop that you may not see coming, with a big burst of jalapeno flavor. Honestly, I could dip a fried cockroach in this stuff and it would be savory.

But what brings my New Albanian experience full circle really is the surroundings. I couldn’t begin to count the many times I’ve hung out and had a relaxing evening with friends over a few pints and some breadsticks. And hey, the pizza is pretty damn good, too.

Just don’t ask for a Bud Light. Word is, they’ll still laugh in your face if you do.