PITY THE NEIGHBORHOOD watering hole. Communities tend to get proprietary about their public houses, overemphasizing the "public" in pub, and bring more of a sense of entitlement to them, I'm convinced, than they would to an ordinary restaurant. Columbia City Ale House
4914 Rainier Ave S, 723-5123 Sun-;Thurs 11:30am-;11pm, Fri-;Sat 11:30am-;midnight MC, V; beer and wine For example, in the two months Columbia City Ale House has been serving that gentrifying Rainier Valley community, the neighborhood buzz has been appreciative, with qualifications. "Nice to have in the 'hood, but they should find a way to allow children like Madrona Ale House does," goes one refrain. "Where are the people of color?" demanded another neighbor, explaining that the white faces crowding the tables don't reflect the spectrum of the neighborhood. "Too pricey for a pub," grumble others. "And what's up," asked a recent visitor, "with the TVs? Does a place this small really need three?" Waaa, waaa, waaa. Ask me, a public house need do only three things well: pour a good pint, impart a genuine and democratic spirit of welcome, and provide food that's more than just an excuse for more beer. Regarding the first, all is quite well in this department, with six varieties in bottles and some 15 on tap, and servers who can talk suds with experience and enthusiasm. As for the second, the service I've encountered here in a handful of visits has been consistently sincere and down-to-earth—just the way a publican ought to host the folks. Let the children and the anti-TV coalition revolt. I say if a pub is managing to fill the tables, it's doing its job. As for the white faces, can an institution be blamed for the contingents it fails to attract? Interesting question, but common sense would suggest no, unless the welcome were not as genuine for some as for others, which is one complaint I've never heard nor witnessed at the unfailingly friendly Columbia City Ale House. As for the third, the pub is kin to Greenwood's 74th Street Ale House and Queen Anne's Hilltop Ale House, establishments of significant reputation for raising pub grub to a higher sphere of achievement. I'm thinking now of 74th Street's magisterial burger. Would this new little sibling live up to the family reputation? WHEN IT COMES to the burger, yes, yes, and more yes. It's a fat and luscious beast, flame-broiled and crowned with cheese, then tucked inside a fresh baguette slathered with mustard and mayo and draped with char- grilled peppers and onions ($7 with cheese, $6.75 without). Not nearly as good is another sandwich staple, the chicken breast sandwich ($8.50). A lightly breaded breast is topped with mozzarella and served between slices of grilled rye with cream cheese, mayo, tomatoes, and red onions: a novel combination, to be sure, but one lacking in some essential complementary flavor. Sweetness, I think. In any event, the former is by far the more satisfying. Other satisfiers on the menu include the salads, all of which are grand. One features, among its organic greens and roasted pecans, a dollop of breaded and baked goat cheese ($5.50 small, $8.25 large). The whole is then glazed with a uniquely full-throated sun-dried tomato/balsamic vinaigrette. Another, featuring groovy greens with sliced apples, red onions, and bleu cheese in an apple-honey-thyme vinaigrette ($5.50 small, $8.25 large), was that time-honored combination done freshly, amply, and right. My favorite dish was a nightly special of risotto ($9.95) topped with chanterelle, portobello, and crimini mushrooms—deglazed with Marsala—and served with a romp of wild greens for levity. The effect was both earthy and refined and altogether delicious. There are problems. Some dishes, where otherwise fine, were just stupidly spicy, obliterating every other flavor within five miles. Corn-crusted catfish, pan-fried and served over green chile posole with red jalape�ioli ($9.50) was that way, and what a pity: The fish was nicely moist, and the plate arrived bounteous and beautiful. A halibut Creole special ($10.95) suffered similarly, with dirty rice that managed somehow to be at once bland and overspiced. Gumbo ($4.25 small, $8.25 large), for its part, rode the line successfully: very spicy but skillfully so, so that the flavors of sausage, chicken, shrimp, vegetables, and ol' man okra weren't sacrificed. In sum, Columbia City Ale House is just plain inconsistent. The best advice seems to be to stay away from the specials, which in my experience have featured experimental efforts and overcooking. But then you run into a dud on the main menu—such as the roasted curry cashews ($3.95), which taste like the spice cabinet exploded all over the nut bowl, or goat cheese-;black bean quesadillas ($7.95, or $9.95 with marinated chicken), which feature boldly unmitigated flavors—and you'll be at a loss again. Maybe it's safest for the time being to stick with the burger and wait. Suck a microbrew, appreciate the hospitable ambiance, and be patient: It's only a matter of time before the neighbors wield their expectations to beat the kitchen into consistency.