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The Ale House, Chef Juan T. Valdez and More Than 50 Craft Brews on Dobbin Center Way - Kings Contrivance Village in Columbia

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With the addition of The Ale House, Columbia now has a nice selection of places really focused on their beer programs and I would venture to say that The Ale House has become my favorite. The description on their website summarizes them well:

Join us for a delicious dinner, then stay for craft beers, cocktails, and live entertainment in our three indoor bars or on the spacious outdoor patio.

Led by Executive Chef Juan T. Valdez, the menu offers a modern take on American classics as well as inventive new items. Equally as exciting is the impressive list of more than 50 craft beers available, including our house brand, Oliver Breweries along with a rotating selection of local and global seasonal brews.

Decor is a bit commercial, but seating is ample and if you're looking to watch sports, there are a large number of flat screens placed strategically throughout. On both of my visits, the servers were friendly and for the most part efficient although there were times where our servers disappeared for periods. This last time perhaps things were a bit too efficient as our entrees were served while we were still working through our apps, but that's a relatively minor quibble.

Food is good to very good, generally standard pub food but with little twists to keep things a bit interesting. Wings for instance are served with a siracha sauce that was on the spicier side our first time, and the sweeter side the second. The signature burger was well executed with an interesting twist of blue cheese, maple bacon and horseradish sauce. Mussels are available in 4 or 5 varieties. On both visits the Farmhouse mussels with pork belly, shallot, shoestring granny smith apples and thyme fennel cream were rich and nicely cooked. It's hard not to compare my experiences here with those at Victoria's and Frisco's. I can say with certainty that the food is definitely better here than at Frisco's and while it's perhaps not as creative or interesting as Victoria's, dishes are generally successful here, which isn't always the case at Victoria's when you venture outside of the well loved burgers and poutine.

But the real star here is the beer program. They get huge points from me for offering all of their draft beers in either 2 or 3 sizes. Most are offered as 5 oz, 10 oz, and 16 oz pours, but a few are offered only as 5 & 12 oz pours. About half of the draft menu is dedicated to their own brews (some in conjunction with other well known local breweries like Stillwater) and for the most part are all successful. The Movember stout, which is no longer being offered (I believe I may have gotten the last pour of it this past Saturday) was a standout, as is the Draft Punk American IPA. I also enjoyed the 3 Lions Ale, a strong brown ale (not something in my normal beer repertoire) a lot on this last visit. One star from the other side of the draft list that I've enjoyed on both visits is the Lagunitas Brown Shugga. The list seems to revolve on an almost daily basis. I've been twice and on the second visit, only a week or two later, there were a lot of changes.They also have a really smart system where the next several beers that will be on tap are listed at the bottom of the menu. If a keg is kicked on a given day, it gets crossed out and the first one on the list at the bottom is automatically made available. That was actually how we ended up drinking the Brown Shugga on our first visit.

One additional plus for The Ale House is the value. Prices are incredibly reasonable with most of the 5 oz pours hovering around $2.50-$2.75. The more expensive 12 oz pours seem to cap out at around $7. I can't speak to the 16 oz pours as I never ordered one and didn't pay close attention to the prices, but I did note that generally you aren't "penalized" for ordering the smaller pour of something. It isn't completely consistent, which is a bit odd, but generally the 10 oz will be twice the price of the 5 oz.

This is a place you go to for the beer, but if you happen to be hungry while you're there, you can generally count on good food along with good value. Additionally service is very friendly. However, if you really want to geek out on the beers, you might be best served sitting at the bar because the real beer knowledge seems to reside with the bartenders. All in all, a place worth stopping by, especially if you live in the area.

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Went this Saturday for my third visit, although my first on a Fri/Sat night. The place was hopping with an estimated hour wait for a table when we arrived around 7, but we had no trouble finding seats at the bar and opted to just stay there for the duration since our impression was that we'd get better service there (and we did). This visit just confirmed my love of this place, and frankly made me think I need to stop qualifying my comments about the food. No, this is not a place where you're going to get locally sourced food if you care about that sort of thing (I do), and items we've ordered more than once haven't always been completely consistent, but generally the food is very good and well executed.

This time, in an effort to change things up, I ordered the ahi tuna tartare for my appetizer. It was what you'd want tuna tartare to be, fresh and well seasoned. It came on a bed of guacamole with a ponzu soy sauce and malanga chips rather than your more standard tortilla chips, which I really appreciated. Presentation was a little fussy with a large pile of pink ginger (the type you'd expect with sushi) on top, the cup of sauce on the side, and a little "tree" of cilantro sticking up out of the tuna, but that was minor. My friend got the brewhouse pretzel again, which is actually 2 gigantic pretzels that are soft and tasty enough to make this grain free eater have a few bites.

For my entree I got totally crazy and ordered a different version of the mussels. So glad I did. The broth on the jalapeno cilantro and cider mussels was out of this world. I was slurping it up using an empty mussel shell until I finally broke down and asked for a spoon. If they weren't served in a giant bowl with a huge rim that would have inevitably led to disaster, I'm pretty sure I would have picked up the bowl and drank what was left when I was done. The mussels were, for the 3rd time, perfectly cooked and the fact that they grill the bread they serve alongside so it has a nice char is an added bonus (darn if Miss Gluten-free didn't eat some of that too as yet another vessel for the broth, but I had also had some drinks by then :P). My friend's fried egg burger was delicious and cooked as requested and the fries were crispy and well seasoned.

Beers were as always universally delicious and the selection had again changed drastically from our last visit. A special perk this time was that they had 3 Devil's Backbone beers available both on draft and cask so that you had the option of tasting them side by side to explore the difference. I did that with both the Black Lager, a schwarz bier and the Eight Point, an "American style" IPA (fwiw, I much preferred the former on draft and the latter on cask).

Finally, we happened to notice that they actually have a nice selection of liquor. 2 glasses of Willett pot still reserve bourbon were enjoyed neat in a toast to my grandmother. And then, because I was originally drawn to it and the bartender of his own accord recommended it after pouring us the Willett, I also had a glass of the Whiskey Pig Straight Rye to cap off our meal. Obviously, we (I?) drank a lot and we left stuffed. Our bill, with tax and tip was still under $150 so I maintain this place is a solid value.

Incidentally, Ale House is tucked away in a nondescript strip mall across the street from the bigger Dobbin strip mall and parking is tight, but they do offer complimentary valet parking, at least on the weekends.

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