Braun Taphaus & Grille: Can the Bar-On family give this place a sporting chance?

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Braun Taphaus & Grille 5601 Olde Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada 303-456-2630 brauntaphaus.com

The last time I overheard a server talking about this little-known vegetable, so electric with its fuchsia flesh that it looks like candy, I was at twelve, a place where novelty is to be expected. But the dialogue caught me by surprise here, surrounded as I was by a pool table, pints of beer and nearly a dozen TVs flashing with basketball games and SportsCenter. "Those are watermelon radishes. They're full of flavor," said the server, who'd been flagged to the booth by a group of women who were laughing like they'd left husbands and high-school kids behind for a girls' night out. No wonder they were confused: Radishes -- whether watermelon or the standard red-and-white variety -- aren't typical sports-bar fare. But then again, Braun Taphaus & Grille wasn't designed as your typical sports bar.

See also: A Closer Look at Braun Taphouse & Grille

Launched in Olde Town Arvada in November, Braun (pronounced "brown") is run by the family behind Udi's, the local chain that's won over locals -- me among them -- with its bright spaces, baked goods and healthy cafe food. Not everyone knows of the connection between Udi's and Braun; some people no doubt come in simply because they're thirsty, or because the Udi's Pizza, Cafe & Bar across the street is full. But it was the promise of carefully crafted food that drew me to this gastropub on a snowy night, food inspired by the family's Austrian heritage as well as the sports-bar theme. "My grandfather's original name was Braun," explains Robin Bar-On, executive chef of U Baron Group and daughter of Udi's founder. "When he moved from Austria to Israel, he changed it to Bar-On, and that's what we use." So in addition to gussied-up versions of nachos, burgers and wings, the menu -- created by Bar-On and executed by Richard Sickler, who divides his time between Braun and Udi's -- includes sausage, pretzels, sauerkraut and strudel. "We liked the idea of a sports bar, but with inspired food," she adds.

Recent visits, however, revealed food more insipid than inspired.

The pork-belly confit I had recently at Beast + Bottle was an inspiration. The pork belly mixed into macaroni and cheese I had at Braun was not, especially since the noodles were tossed with a Colorado pale ale white-cheddar sauce that tasted as pale as its name. Neither was pork belly an inspired addition to nachos, a sports-bar staple that at one point in my life would've counted as a food group. Fried in-house, the white-flour (not corn) tortillas had soaked up too much oil, leaving them as appetizing as those bowl-shaped taco-salad shells of yore. And with too much overlap, not enough of the toppings made it to each chip -- not that I wanted more belly, anyway. In both dishes, the fatty cubes seemed like name-dropping, the kitchen's attempt to make food sound more refined -- and tasty -- than it was.

Sirloin stout stew, one of four entrees on Braun's menu, was another disappointment. The bowl had plenty of beef flavor -- but it also had plenty of salt, and not enough chunks of meat or vegetables. It was more like beef gravy than stew, and with a mound of unseasoned mashed potatoes in the center, I could only view the server's earlier attempt to convince us to order cornbread "to soak up the stew" as a not-so-blatant upsell. With a name that reminded me of the cronut, the chicken & croissaffles, a brunch offering, wasn't nearly as successful as Dominique Ansel's marriage of the croissant and doughnut. This riff committed the no-no that riles up chicken-and-waffles lovers: It lolled in sweetness. Made with specialty dough called Kouign Amann, which is akin to sweet croissant dough, the waffles front-loaded the dish with so much caramelized sugar, it tasted like dessert. The same dough is used as the base for apple strudel, which I had eagerly anticipated given the family's Austrian roots. But the apples had been drenched in butter and brown sugar, which was overkill with the already sweet wrapper. The pretzel bread pudding also fell flat, with hunks of dried-out pretzel that seemed like they'd never been soaked in custard. The pretzel -- made by a baker in Boulder -- was better on its own as an appetizer, fat and chewy and sprinkled with salt, served warm with mustard. But a pretzel roll didn't do the Bavarian brat sandwich any favors, either, with too much bun for the sausage and sauerkraut that wasn't made in-house -- and tasted like it. Other than the fine Taphaus salad, a mix of chicken, almonds, dates, goat cheese, cornbread croutons, romaine and kale that would be right at home at Udi's, Braun's dishes are best when they're not trying so hard. The Taphaus burger was a table favorite, with roasted tomatoes in addition to lettuce, pickles and onions, even if the bun had the flat texture and flavor of a generic store brand. (Wisely, Braun recently changed to Udi's-baked buns.) An order of fish and chips also proved delicious, with a beer batter as light as tempura and ultra-crispy steak fries that started life as baked potatoes before being twice fried. But it would have been nice to have gotten more than four small strips of fish and six fries.

Given the restaurant's owners, I expected more from Braun, which feels a bit rushed. Maybe that's because this venture came at a busy time for the family-run outfit, sandwiched between Udi's expansion into CitySet and the renaming of all the Udi's locations. (The company's gluten-free and granola division was sold in 2012 to Smart Balance, and part of the deal was to rename the restaurants -- a small price to pay for a $125 million offer.) But when the Archive Room, across from Arvada's Udi's Pizza, Cafe & Bar, closed at the end of September, the family decided to jump on the space, busy time or not. "We wanted to do a totally different concept," says Bar-On, "and the pieces fell into place" for a sports bar. The space already looked like one, with two rows of booths, a long, mirrored bar and tall wooden cocktail tables. With few physical changes required beyond adding more taps, TVs and a fresh coat of paint, the family was able to turn Braun around two months later.

But now the Bar-Ons need to work on what's coming out of the kitchen.

Selected dishes at Braun Taphaus & Grille Das pretzel $5.75 Taphaus mac & cheese $6.50 Pork-belly nachos $10 Taphaus salad $10 The Bavarian $5.75 Taphaus burger $5.25 Sirloin stout stew $12 Fish and chips $12 Chicken & croissaffles $9 Apple strudel $6 Chocolate pretzel pudding $6

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