I foolishly leveled my expectations at the brew pub level.
Given the number of new breweries that I have been to recently, I was thinking sandwiches, shareables like cheese fries or nachos, and maybe a burger or two.
But what I found at Three Rivers Distilling Co. was a menu so upscale and trendy it could have easily been one of Fort Wayne's fine dining establishments. But that's not to say there weren't some unintimidating shareables you could nosh on between drinks, too.
The dichotomy between the levels of food were best seen when it came to appetizers.
The Yuzu Poached Prawn was fine dining-worthy for sure. The giant 4-ounce prawn was beautifully poached and joined by pickled carrots and daikon radish, micro greens and a wasabi cocktail sauce. The shrimp didn't need much help as it had a timid sweet yuzu flavor as it was. The relish was crunchy and provided a little texture, but the tiny greens were basically useless except for decoration. The bright red cocktail sauce was fine, but I struggled to really pick up the wasabi. It had a little kick but could have used more.
On the flip side, the bruschetta was straightforward and delicious though it wasn't your everyday bruschetta. Instead of fresh tomatoes and basil, this winter version had a butternut squash relish, an olive tapenade, balsamic pearls and olive oil powder. It was a tasty dish, and I loved the firm texture of the squash, but it confused me. The tapenade was rather light, almost white, and looked like cream cheese so I assumed it was made with green olives. The pearls were wonderful, but the powder was more show than go.
The mac and cheese could go on any menu and it was about as decadent as mac and cheese can get thanks to its white cheddar and bacon cheese sauce. The sauce coated the pretty spiral ballerine pasta nicely and the addition of bacon fat gave it a wonderful bacon flavor but also coated the mouth in a way that some might not enjoy. I loved the fattiness but think it would be better as a meal than an appetizer because it was very unctuous.
The artichoke and spinach dip had a great creamy texture and I loved the gouda used to make it. Served with bread instead of chips, the flavor was enjoyable, but a lack of spinach and artichoke made it a bit of a waste.
Deviled eggs are quite trendy right now and Three Rivers offered a version with avocado filling, pickled red onions and micro greens. I would not have them again, however, as they were tiny little eggs for starters, and each had a single sliver of onion and single green that made them quite mundane.
There was nothing wasteful about the BBQ smoked pork belly sandwich. The pork was thick and roast-like with a River City Rum and Cherry Coke barbecue sauce that had the perfect mix of sweetness and spice. The only thing more I could have wanted was some crispy bark, but I would still run back to have this again.
I was confused as to why plain blue tortilla chips were served with sandwiches. Without salsa or any other condiment, they were pretty useless, though mine did find their way around the inside of my empty mac and cheese bowl and into that gouda dip.
The smoked beef short ribs easily topped the belly as my favorite dish. Amazing is the only way to describe them. The meat was smoked to perfection and fell apart easily like good pot roast. There was a little scrumptious beef fat here and there, and the addictive, seed-dotted Third Time Bourbon-mustard demi-glace was applied deftly to accent without overpowering.
The white cheddar grits underneath the ribs could be paired with anything because they, too, were amazing. I would love to have tried the shrimp and prawns that were on special during one visit, but I must not have been alone because the restaurant had run out of it.
Though it didn't sound too exciting on the menu, the Bourbon Plank Salmon was a close second to the ribs. Again, it was the execution that let it stand out. It had a nice seared crust but was flaky and moist; the herbed emulsified butter sauce added fatty richness and the celery root puree and butternut squash succotash simply accented the fish.
The puree did not pair as well with the chicken roulade. The stuffing of spinach, pecans and dried apricots was nice with the juicy chicken breast, but the puree was a bit dominant and came off as baby food on the palate. The red wine oil also needed to be applied directly on the roulade instead of splashed on the plate as I struggled to get enough of it as I dragged each bite around my plate.
I also struggled with the basil sugar brittle on my Flourless River City Rum Fudge Brownie. It had the perfect fudge-like texture but was not overly rich and heavy. Nutella powder boosted the chocolate flavor and the melting vanilla ice cream was welcome. But the brittle was very hard, and I feared each bite would crack a tooth.
The Bourbon Salted Caramel Cheesecake produced no fears and I devoured it like a carefree kid. The bourbon caramel sauce and candied pecans atop the spot-on cheesecake with a cannelle of whipped cream made this the perfect meal-ender.
The cocktails, like the appetizers and desserts, were hit and miss. The barrel-aged whiskey sour had too strong of a lemon citrus flavor that hid the Third Time Bourbon. The Franklin B. Rye Old Fashioned, however, was executed perfectly with cherry, orange and simple syrup bitters.
The biggest drink flaw was that my server failed to ask which liquor I wanted with some of the drinks I tried, so I was unsure if I was getting the rye or bourbon.
It was the only real service flaw I experienced at Three Rivers, which also has a marvelous atmosphere that mixes modern styling with rugged industrial features. Its courtyard patio area and unique rental space are stunning.
Restaurant: Three Rivers Distilling Co.
Address: 224 E. Wallace St.
Hours: 4 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 4 to 11 p.m. Friday; noon to 11 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Mac and cheese ($4), deviled eggs ($6), bruschetta ($9), artichoke-spinach dip ($10), prawn ($18), ribs ($24), salmon ($26), roulade ($23), belly sandwich ($13), brownie ($10), cheesecake ($7)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★★ (3-star maximum); atmosphere: ★ (1 maximum), service: ★ (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
Three Rivers Distilling Co.
Out of a possible five