Gray's Tied House
750 Kimball Lane, Verona, 845-2337
11:30 am-9 pm Sun., 11:30 am-10 pm Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 am-11 pm Sat. Burgers and sandwiches $8-$10 with fries, entrÃes $15-$28 with potato and salad. Parking. Wheelchair accessible. Smoking in bar area only. Major credit cards. No checks.
I had read some unflattering reviews of Gray's Tied House after it opened last September in Verona, so I wasn't really expecting much when four of us stopped in on a recent weekday night. Happily, both the food and the service must have improved over the past couple of months.
A tied house is a British invention, a bar or restaurant 'tied' to a single brewery. In this case, the brewery is Gray's, in Janesville, and Gray's craft beers are what you'll find here. Fortunately, the beers are good, else you'd be stuck with Miller Lite, the only other option. (Gray's traces its roots back to 1856, when Joshua Gray started the brewery. They stopped making beer in 1912, concentrating on root beer and other soft drinks, then, in 1994, returned to beer brewing once again.)
The log building housing the restaurant is a huge, open affair, with a two-story atrium over the bar, plenty of seating both downstairs and up, and lots of tile and wood everywhere. If there were animal heads on the wall, I'd swear I was in a Montana hunting lodge. Five giant plasma television screens over the U-shaped bar will keep sports fans happy, and a little bar in front of the brick pizza oven will please those who like to watch dancing flames. There is also a huge aquarium, and an outdoor plaza awaiting warmer weather.
My first foray to Grays was solo, for lunch, where I had a juicy hamburger and a glass of Oatmeal Stout, Gray's strongest and creamiest beer. Both were great, the burger served in a substantial Kaiser bun with lettuce and tomato, a dish each of jalapeÃo butter and jalapeÃo slices, and some of the best bar fries I have ever had ' called brew fries, they are crispy and golden outside, moist and white inside, and served piping hot. There are also sweet potato fries.
First, the beers, which lean toward the hoppy side and are just a little sweet, but all very pleasant. We especially enjoyed the Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout, aged in used bourbon barrels for nine months, and the Rathskeller Amber Ale, which is creamy and aromatic. Gray's also brews Fauerbach, which old-time Madisonians will remember, and Hausmann, which also has deep Madison roots. You can get a free sample of any of the draft beers, or order a sampler tray to try them all. You can enjoy these with some nice, greasy appetizers ' fried white cheese curds, calamari rings, buffalo wings and onion straws.
The menu also offers sandwiches and pasta dishes and a good assortment of appetizers, pizzas, soups and salads and desserts.
The dinner entrÃes, served with salad and freshly baked bread, include steaks, seafood dishes and baby back ribs. Here, we get into hit-or-miss territory. The good news is that my New York strip steak was excellent ' tender, spiked with a mild Cajun seasoning and seared to medium-rare perfection. But the crumbled blue cheese on top simply didn't work. It never really melted, just fused into a sorry lump. I scraped it off and enjoyed the steak, along with more of those great brew fries.
Bubba's Gumbo was close to a disaster. This rice stew had some nice, tender shrimp to speak for it, but the advertised blackened cod was not blackened ' in fact, it didn't seem to be cooked at all, since the flesh was still translucent and cool.
The fresh catch grill was fine, with ahi tuna, salmon, and shrimp in a cilantro-lime sauce.
We felt obligated to try a dessert, just as a service to the reader. Choices include berry pound cake, hot fudge cake and an ice cream float. But we shared a caramel crÃme brÃlÃe, which was nice enough, although the kitchen apparently hasn't yet mastered the art of the brÃlÃe torch.
The service throughout our visit was friendly and efficient. By the time the evening was over, we felt we knew our server well enough to be invited to her children's next birthday parties.
Gray's is a good place to decompress after work, to watch a game with friends, or to enjoy a casual lunch or dinner anytime. Go for the beer, stay for the fun.
And this Saturday ' St. Patrick's Day ' should offer more fun than usual, with corned beef and cabbage, drink specials, and plenty of green plastic derby hats to pass around. Bring a designated driver.