HE ATE

Creative bar food and ambiance at Williamston brewery

By MARK NIXON

Hunkered on the western fringe of Williamston, could easily be mistaken for a warehouse. Its massive slate-gray exterior is bleak; made bleaker by a pothole-studded parking lot.

When I was told the building used to be Williamston’s police station, I nodded in understanding. Yep, it has all the trappings of soulless institutional architecture.

What a surprise, then, when I walked through the door. The place was alive, festive and full of good cheer. On our first visit, a Friday, we arrived well before 5 p.m. By the time we ordered our meals, a long line snaked across part of the dining room as people waited for open tables.

As its name implies, Old Nation’s stock-in-trade is the wide selection of beers and ales brewed on site. If beer is not your go-to adult beverage, your choices are limited. Liquor is not an option, and there is some confusion about the wine. I was told they served no wine, yet I found it on Old Nation’s online menu.

For me, beer was just fine. I like beer, to quote U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Come to think of it, wasn’t that one of the weirdest things to come out of the mouth of a Supreme Court nominee in a confirmation hearing?

OK, back to the beer. The list of choices is prodigious. If you’re not sure, I recommend getting a flight of five different brews — $7-$10 for a flight, depending on your choices. I prefer stouts and porters, and so my favorite at Old Nation was Electron Brown. There’s a depth and richness to dark beers that I find lacking in the IPAs and many ales.

Kudos to those in charge of naming the brews; Detroit Dwarf, Boss Tweed, Brother Pius and Ten Penny Bit are just a few of the creative names. The most popular beer at Old Nation is M-43, named after the highway — AKA Grand River Avenue — that runs past the brew pub.

With all the attention paid to the beer, you might expect the pub fare would be an afterthought. I was pleasantly surprised at how creative the fare is at Old Nation — and how generous the portions are.

My favorite taste during two visits was the Pig Stacked Burger ($16) — a beef burger topped with pulled pork, ham, bacon, Swiss and American cheeses, barbecue sauce and “frizzled” onions. Just reciting that makes me want to check in with my cardiologist.

Old Nation Brewing Co.

1500 E. Grand River Ave.

Williamston, MI 48895 (517) 655-1301 www.oldnationbrewing.com Monday through Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Friday & Saturday 11 a.m. to Midnight Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Regardless, the burger was cooked medium, as requested. Our friend, Bruce, dined with us on our second visit and he echoed my thoughts. “It’s damn difficult to get a burger cooked the way I like them … medium. The cook at Old Nation nailed it.”

The second best food item I tasted at Old Nation was the house-made chili ($3.50 for a cup). It was a bit spicier than I had hoped for, but the smokiness (smoked paprika?) tamed the spice and added a layer of richness.

Judy informed me that tater tots are the latest pub fad. I gave an eye roll, but she persisted, to quote ol’ Pinched-mouth Mitch McConnell, and proceeded to order BBQ Pulled Pork Tots ($11). OK, I was wrong. They were actually pretty good, dabbed with a smoky sour cream and barbecue sauce. We had the leftovers for breakfast the next morning.

The enormous portion of Mac and Cheese with blackened chicken ($16) was well above average. To make it better, I’d recommend using a sharper cheese as part of the blend, and then broil or pan fry it to create a crisp, brown exterior.

One of the great, positive changes to the Lansing area’s restaurant scene is the interior artistry. Those of a certain age (like me) remember restaurant interiors that might have been purchased at a dollar store.

These days, ambiance is given a co-starring role with the bill of fare. Old Nation certainly gets that. Bar taps adorn a faux wooden beer keg protruding from behind the bar. A wooden clock nearby has Old Nation carved into it.

On one wall is a 3-dimensional sign — Old Nation Brewing Co. — made from stainless steel pipes and fittings. The pieces appear to be extra parts from the working brewery apparatus, which can be viewed through a dining room window.

The only thing I would change is to — paraphrasing our new governor-elect — fix the damn potholes.

SHE ATE

Burgers and wraps on point, other dishes could use improvement

By GABRIELLE LAWRENCE

In the paraphrased words of governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer, fix the damn parking lot! I have oodles of thoughts to share about the food at Old Nation Brewing Co., but I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to beseech management to make some serious improvements to the parking lot. It is a minefield and needs some serious improvement.

Our first visit to Old Nation, a weekend brunch date with friends, started with cheese curds and fried green beans. Both were lightly battered — always my preference when dealing with a fried food — and were a welcome, upscale twist on what I lovingly call “carnie food.”

As the gentlemen debated the merits, and tastes, of beermosas and Bloody Marys, I hemmed and hawed over my order. A welcome phenomenon confronts me when I look at the Old Nation menu —there are so many items that I want to try that it is hard to finalize my order.

I eventually decided upon the squash hash, although it breaks one of my restaurant rules in that it is very similar to something that I would make at home. I generally try to order things that I can’t or won’t make myself, but I was in the mood for a savory, breakfasty item with eggs and this perfectly fit the bill. Chunks of butternut squash were tossed with crumbled pork sausage, spinach, onion and topped with two over-easy eggs and a sprinkle of fresh herbs.

This dish won’t win any innovation awards, but it doesn’t need to. The seasonings were on point, the egg yolks begged to be pierced with the tines of my fork, and I was a happy eater. The accompanying side-salad was nothing to write home about and was filled with low-rent shredded cheese and limp greens.

Mr. She Ate threw me for a loop and ordered the tender basket, six big chicken tenders served with tater coins. This, unfortunately, was actual carnie food. The breading was overwhelming and the flavors were milquetoast.

One of our companions won the ordering competition of the morning with his avocado steakhouse burger. A thick, juicy burger patty was topped with sautéed onions, peppers and mushrooms blanketed with Swiss cheese.

The other side of the bun was laden with crisp lettuce, red onion, tomato and several perfectly ripe slices of avocado. I snagged a bite after my mouth started watering and stared him down in envy for the remainder of the meal. It got awkward.

On our return visit, Mr. She Ate and I again struggled to narrow down our order. We finally chose a half order of the poutine, a dish that was invented in Montreal and includes French fries traditionally topped with gravy, cheese and an egg or two. This was garden-variety poutine, the gravy needed more seasoning and the fries were too thin to stand up to the thickness of the sauce.

Although I don’t generally prefer to order a wrap, I do prefer anything with “spicy feta” in the description. So, accordingly, I chose the spicy feta wrap with a side of fried brussels sprouts with parmesan cheese. The wrap was stuffed with grilled chicken, lettuce, tomato, onion and a non-offensively spicy feta sauce, and I wisely packed up half to take home while I turned my attention to the brussels sprouts. These were sliced and fried until crisp, then topped with a few shavings of tangy parmesan cheese. Again, something that I make at home regularly, but also something that I can rarely resist.

Mr. She Ate had the black and bleu steak wrap and had to treat himself to two sides, the broccoli with beer cheese sauce and house-made salt and vinegar potato chips. The wrap was more than serviceable, he said, with the steak prepared to order. The chips were a unique house special – and my man is a huge fan of unique house special items — and were thick-cut and especially tangy. The broccoli, however, was a miss. The cheese sauce should have had more punch to it, but the fatal flaw was the pool of water gathered in the bottom of the dish. Waterlogged steamed broccoli might be good for babies — and Baby She Ate did indeed gobble down a few pieces, all the better for a newly one-year-old boy — but most of it remained in the dish.

Notably, our service on both visits was refreshingly attentive and, for lack of a better word, normal. We didn’t have to get in the car and ask each other “why did she ask you how you want your chicken cooked,” or something else that makes no sense. We were promptly given high chairs when we asked for them, and aside from the inclusion of a tomato on Mr. She Ate’s wrap when it was requested that the kitchen jettison the offending tomato, everything we ordered was correct. This may not seem like it deserves mention, but fresh from a lunch where the server bowed while she presented me with a glass of water and referred to me as “M’lady,” it made me happy.