New neighborhood hot spots
Reviewed by Melanie Haupt, Fri., Dec. 13, 2013
Mon.-Fri., 11am-12mid; Sat., 11am-1am; Sun., 11am-12mid
From the folks who brought you Black Sheep Lodge comes Haymaker, the second recently opened Manor Road pub geared toward sandwich-loving beer drinkers. One of Haymaker's claims to fame is the poutine ($7.49), a Canadian dish featuring french fries topped with cheese curds and drenched in gravy. Haymaker offers two varieties of poutine: traditional, with brown gravy, and Southern style, with white gravy. They are both very tasty, the traditional version skewing toward salty and beefy while the Southern style opts for a mellower approach. However, the best part of the poutine experience is spearing a plump ribbon of gravy-warmed cheese curd on a fork along with a french fry, then reveling in the marriage of textures as you race to finish the dish before it grows cold. Despite the menu's claim, there were no cheese curds (Wisconsin or otherwise) in sight on separate visits. Rather, the cheese in both versions of the dish appears to be shredded, perhaps to facilitate melting, but that's not the point of poutine. Poutine without cheese curds is just fries covered in gravy.
The other selling point of Haymaker's menu is the assortment of "regionally inspired" sandwiches, from plate-hogging, meat-heavy monstrosities to tidy little grilled cheeses delicately stuffed with herbs, bagged lettuce mix, fruit, and nuts. Sandwiches from the Big and Burly portion of the menu come open-faced and smothered in the gastropub's signature "Gruyère" sauce, which is a rather ghastly yellow and tastes strongly of Velveeta. As a result, the delicate flavors of the Croque Monsieur ($9.49) – which traditionally derives its sturdiness from the combination of rich béchamel, salty ham, and nutty Gruyère – are crushed under the boot of a greasy, processed cheese gloop. The Louisville Slugger ($9.99), a riff on the Benedictine bacon sandwich at Louisville's Cheddar Box Cafe, fares only slightly better, with heaps of sliced turkey breast and generous spears of seared bacon holding their own against the nefarious sauce.
The sandwiches from the Bomber Style and A La Plancha sections of the menu were fine and mostly forgettable. In fact, I had to refer to a receipt from a previous visit to recall that I'd had a Margherita Grilled Cheese ($8.49), about which I have no strong feelings either way. The salads and desserts are an afterthought; save your calories for another round of drinks.
Because Haymaker is a bar as much as it is a restaurant, patrons should adjust their expectations accordingly. Flat-screen TVs line the west wall of the dining area, and the music is distractingly loud and forecloses upon any hopes of companionable conversation. Service is uneven, at times benignly negligent and at others displaying appropriate attention to detail. For example, the experience of sharing an order of drippy, messy poutine when you've been provided side plates, forks, and napkins is eminently preferable to the alternative.
Where Haymaker shines is in its extensive collection of beers both global and local in provenance, as well as signature cocktails, like the Moscow Mueller ($7), that emphasize the proprietors' dedication to satisfying the diverse palates of East Austin drinkers. I must take exception, though, to the portion of the beer menu described as "White Trash Canned Beers." Cheeky, ironic, hipster classist racism is still classist racism. With its pool tables, dartboards, impressive bar menu, and comfortable patio, Haymaker is destined to enjoy a long tenure as a beloved local for the denizens of Manor Road. As a fun place to hang out, Haymaker is a knockout. As a dining destination, it utterly fails to connect.