Feb. 12 2014 12:00 AM

Gastropub chain a good fit for downtown East Lansing


Too much of a good thing?

by Mark Nixon

We live in the Golden Age of Beer. Craft beers and microbreweries are everywhere — certainly in Michigan, which is in the vanguard of the craft beer phenomenon.

It seemed inevitable, then, that HopCat would land hereabouts. Like the original HopCat in Grand Rapids, HopCat in East Lansing is a beer drinker’s paradise. (A third location in Detroit’s Midtown district was announced last week.)

If you don’t go much for beer, my advice is to go to HopCat anyway. With close to 100 beers on tap, there’s a good chance you’ll find a beer that appeals. If you’re a complete teetotaler, well, maybe you should walk on by. On the other hand, food is no orphan in this brew-based mecca.

I love the name of this place, by the way. Hepcat is that jazzborne term for someone in the know, music-wise. Since hops are the foundations of most beers, the name suggests a real cool cat, beer-wise.

OK, enough etymological thumb sucking. Let’s have a drink. While HopCat doesn’t offer flights of beer samples per se, it sells tasting portions for $1 each. The hard part is figuring out which of the 100 beers to sample. Ask the server for suggestions.

I ordered five samples on the first visit, all of which were or were akin to stout. I sipped Cabin Fever ($5.50), Edmund Fitzgerald ($5), Lochdown ($5), Kona Brown ($5.50) and Black Magic ($5). Kona Brown was the clear favorite, a smoky, coffeescented brew.

On the second visit, my wife, Judy, sampled Hog Heaven ($5), a barley-made beer that was too bitterly hoppy for my taste. She then ordered a Belgian beer that was too floral tasting. She finally settled on Toasted Lager ($5), and we both agreed you could almost taste the toasted grains. This was a winner.

Some historical perspective is in order: I come from a generation that considered the go-to beer was Stroh’s, and ordering a Heineken was considered exotic, maybe even showing off.

So, yeah, college-age beer drinkers in East Lansing (I understand there are a few) should consider themselves blessed to have such wide-ranging beer choices available.

HopCat could probably be forgiven if it didn’t lift a spatula trying to make good pub grub. This is a fancified beer hall, after all. Surprisingly, we found the fare to be ... fair — and in a couple of cases, quite good.

On our first visit, Judy ordered the steamed mussels ($12.95), which came bathed in light cream and broth, then sprinkled with fresh-cut scallions and bacon. Not the best mussels in town — that blue ribbon goes to Capital Prime Steakhouse — but these are worth trying.

I had the mac and cheese ($8.50), and ordered add-ons of grilled chicken, roasted red peppers and basil. It arrived piping hot, and the mix of herb and roast vegetables paired well with the rich cheeses.

Meanwhile, our friend ordered a hamburger, medium rare. Personally, I won’t eat a burger that’s practically still mooing, but this one arrived as ordered. “Perfect,” he proclaimed.

On our second visit, I began with vegetarian chili ($4), an amiable soup that was rightly spiced. Next came a burger. All hamburgers on the menu are halfpounders. The prices reflect that. Burgers start at $8.95, though they do come with HopCat’s seasoned crack fries.

I ordered the Bar Zee burger, which includes apple-smoked bacon, jalapenos and Michele’s Beerbar Cheese (think a creamier version of the horseradishtinged Win Schuler’s Bar Cheese). It’s an above-average burger served on a plump brioche bun. However, it came heaped in a way that made it almost impossible to eat with your hands.

Too much of a good thing can be off-putting. On an earlier visit, Jan and Bruce shared the bruschetta ($8.50), with tomato, fresh basil, garlic feta and balsamic reduction on grilled baguette slices. They gave it a thumbs up on the taste, but a thumbs down on the inability to eat it by hand without half the contents spilling forth.

Our recent restaurant excursions have been a recurring dream of minimalism, where decor is dismissed as frou-frou. So it’s refreshing to see HopCat go all in. Geometric designs above the bar are made of bottle caps. Scattered about are color splashed, primitive portraits of John Lennon, Frank Zappa, Elton John and other rock stars, looking “as if they were painted by Grandma Moses,” Judy said.

Some may deride HopCat’s interior as the visual equivalent of its bruschetta — too much of a good thing. Personally, I think they got the look right without jumping the shark. As we sat at HopCat’s bar, I noted that less than a block away, one of East Lansing’s first bars opened when voters overwhelming chose to make this town “wet” in 1968. As they said in the ‘60s, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Bacon is the new black

by Gabrielle Johnson

It has only been nine (yikes) years since I graduated from Michigan State, and while I’m not as young as I once was, I still understand the demographic in East Lansing. HopCat could serve frozen pizza rolls and boxed macaroni and cheese and as long as the beer is flowing, the undergrads will flock. So it didn’t come as a galloping shock to me that the food was underwhelming, although the rumors that the chef is a transplant from one of my favorite local restaurants, Tavern 109 in Williamston, pinned my hopes higher than they would normally be for bar food.

The boyfriend and I stopped in for Sunday brunch a few weeks ago. The place wasn’t busy, which boded well for us since we were pressed for time. I ordered a modified BLT sandwich ($8.50), a traditional bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich with an egg thrown in. I love a poached egg and jumped on that option — all the better for bread dunking and yolk smearing. The bread, which comes from Nantucket Baking Co. in Grand Rapids, was grainy and good, and necessarily hearty enough to stand up to a sandwich positively loaded with bacon.

I know bacon is the new black. I’ll take a radical stand here — there is such a thing as too much bacon, and there was too much bacon on this sandwich. From a glance at the menu, I knew that the sandwich had peppercorn-blue cheese mayonnaise, which I wanted to taste. All I could taste was bacon.

My sandwich came with a choice of HopCat’s signature crack fries or poor man’s hash. My chosen hash was chock-full of crisped-up potatoes, doused with hot sauce and topped with chopped green onions. A heartier version is on the menu as a main dish with the addition of corn, bacon, and corned beef. It’s an intriguing combo that I’d like to try again, maybe with half the normal amount of bacon next time.

The boyfriend didn’t fare as well with his cheeseburger. The pre-made, formerly frozen patty was topped with wilted lettuce and was cooked far beyond the requested medium rare. He sent it back and a new burger came back, prepared exactly the same way. There is a market in East Lansing for fast food-style burgers, obviously. But if a restaurant is going to charge $8.95, I expect something better than an industrial patty and lettuce that appeared to be a week old. (Our server told us that the burger would be taken off our bill, a nice gesture but for the fact that it didn’t actually happen.)

We returned for dinner on a Friday night, prepared to wait. I was taken aback when the hostess asked me for my cell phone number so she could text me when our table was ready. Feelings among my friends on this practice are mixed, but I don’t like it. We opted to sit at the bar and started our meal with beerbar cheese ($4.95), a slightly spicy cheese spread served with half-moon pita chips. It isn’t going to win any awards, but it was perfectly serviceable bar food to snack on.

While I’m not a bacon fanatic, offer me a buffalo chicken sandwich and I can’t resist. I ordered the Angry Bird ($9.50), a crispy chicken breast battered in buffalo sauce and dripping with blue cheese on a brioche bun. I always love the combination of spicy buffalo sauce and tangy blue cheese, and this was no exception. I wasn’t crazy about the brioche bun; the sweetness of the bread competed with the sandwich instead of complementing it. The crack fries are a little bit sweet, peppery, crisp and well-seasoned. I’ve noticed that marketing something as “addictive” makes people like it even more, and people do love their crack fries.

The boyfriend ordered the Grand Royale ($9.95), which I could describe as a sloppy joe in the way that one could describe the Christmas 2013 power outage as an “inconvenience.” The sloppy joe was the size of my head. The sandwich was stuffed with jalapenos, crack fries, and cheese sauce, which also topped the entire thing and dripped down the sides, making a pool for the fries to swim in as they spent their final moments before being gobbled up. Picking up the sandwich wasn’t an option, but eating it was made easier by the huge steak knife stuck into the top of it, signifying that this sandwich wasn’t for the lighthearted. The Grand Royale was intimidating, and it was fantastic.

If HopCat keeps pouring beer, it will be successful. But my search for a great brunch in East Lansing continues.