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Red House Tavern

Canton tavern does some things well, others not so much

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden

Red House Tavern

2239 Essex St., [410] 522-0015,

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Alex, bartender, host, and server at Canton’s Red House Tavern, is a curly-haired dynamo in a red polo shirt. He can explain the process of making duck confit for the duck nachos, reel off daily and happy hour specials (and there are lots of them) with a soft smile and without breaking a sweat, and will wait with seemingly endless patience while you decide what to eat and drink though he is the only visible staff member in the joint. Alex is without a doubt the best thing about Red House Tavern, and unfortunately this damns him with faint praise (he really is a gem).

Reopened under new ownership in April, Red House Tavern has what feels like an identity crisis. Is it a bar, as the televisions, the four-tops, the cash machine, the classic rock that seems to get louder as the evening wears on, the wing specials, and the beautiful carved-wood bar suggest? Or is it a casual restaurant with a fireplace, a book nook, and a culinary global twist, as the gnocchi, fried green tomatoes, and red curried glass noodles on the menu suggest? The best, though still unsatisfying, answer is that Red House Tavern is a bar that happens to serve food.

That the food and drink feel a little off here is perhaps a consequence of management trying too hard to be distinctive without enough focus on the basics. Witness a tap selection that includes Natty Boh, Yuengling, Negro Modelo, Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, Evolution Rise Up Stout, and Magic Hat No. 9. Granted, it’s a quirky offering (and it sometimes changes), but it becomes a bit unbalanced when the Yuengling tap is out, as it was one evening last week. The result is very little middle ground between the alcohol-heavy particular flavor profile of the last three brews and the generic qualities of the remaining offerings (though at $1.50, the Natty Boh is cheapcheapcheap during happy hour). The addition of a quality, straightforward pale ale a la Heavy Seas or Sierra Nevada or even Sam Adams—and even in bottles—would easily remedy this.

The menu offerings are similarly uneven and often misleading. The kitchen rarely makes soup, you’re told, even though a soup du jour is always on the menu. The menu also promises mashed potatoes and collard greens as accompaniments to country-fried steak ($16), but the plate comes with a baked potato and a side of the deadly dull and ubiquitous “mixed vegetables.” I’m fine with broccoli and a baked potato but doesn’t salty, floury gravy demand (real) mashed potatoes?

Offering country-fried steak at all is novel, as is offering duck nachos ($13), but quality trumps novelty every time, and despite fresh pico de gallo and chips from Tortilleria Sinaloa, the nachos are a dry mound of chips, with a sprinkle of equally dry duck confit, so brown it could be any meat. Lift a chip or two and find a pinch of shredded cheese, not melted and at room temperature. Nothing binds the components of the nachos; it is a disappointing plate.

Other quibbles unfold during the evening. The $5 burger special on Thursdays is a great deal for 6 ounces of Roseda beef, but not if the burger arrives well done instead of medium rare and missing the fried egg ($.50 extra) (the house-cut fries more than make the grade though). Pink peppercorn gnocchi ($11) are light and not doughy, but the addition of cranberries to the cream sauce makes for an awfully sweet dish that will be fine for only some, not all, palates.

And looking over the menu, one wonders how many people order a $24 seafood creole from a menu that includes standard bar fare such as Old Bay fries, wings (three for $1 with a minimum order of six during happy hour), cheese steaks, crab cakes, and the “cardiac burger,” a pound of Roseda beef layered with bacon, fried onions, cheese, and a fried egg, and stuffed between two grilled cheese sandwiches. And in fact, save one table of men and women eating wings and burgers, most of the Red House Tavern’s customers—male, mid-20s to mid-50s—were enjoying beers at the bar.

Red House Tavern has both a real earnestness and an unfinished quality to it, even in its physical space, where the bar side boasts a handsome repro metal ceiling while the dining-side ceiling features exposed beams. And there’s something about this that suggests it’s still a work in progress, that with the right focus, the food could be as good as the folks who serve it. Red House Tavern is fine place to raise a pint. With a few revisions, it could be a fine place to eat as well.

Red House Tavern is open seven days a week for dinner.

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