In 2012, when restaurateur Robert Thompson opened Punch Bowl Social, a 23,700-sq.-ft. hippodrome tricked out with a bowling alley, Ping-Pong tables, multiple bars and lounges and a video arcade, he could have uncaged a dumbed-down menu of gutter balls, all too often the calling card of eat-ertainment hangouts. But Thompson, who now owns and operates three Punch Bowl Social locations across the nation (a fourth will open later this year in Detroit, and Chicago is dialed in for 2015), is a serious food geek, and from the onset, he insisted that Sergio Romero, his culinary director, create a scroll of elevated "gastro-diner" dishes that would appeal to culinary-minded crowds.
Punch Bowl's voluminous menu has changed several times since its inception, but with the arrival of new executive chef Jeff Grimm (most recently of P17), the overhaul has been extensive, and while the board is still firmly entrenched in the gastro-diner camp, there's significant movement toward more conscious - and produce-leaning - eating. "We've been a gastro-diner from day one, but our guests wanted healthier, lighter, more seasonal and more modern interpretations of classic diner food, and that's what the new menu represents," explains Thompson.
To that end, Grimm's board, which showcases fresh-squeezed juices, playful takes on quinoa and couscous, innovative preparations utilizing vegetables (kale, of course) and contemporary renditions of familiar classics — think buffalo meatloaf with garlic confit and hericot verts — steps up its game, as does the cocktail collection, which is now in the adept hands of bar manager Tico Burgos, a Boston transplant whose drink catalog, he says, "is more sophisticated and seasonal, but still super-accessible."
On a recent jaunt to Punch Bowl, we tried several of the new dishes and cocktails, enjoying nearly everything that slipped through our lips. Here's a glimpse of our five favorites.
If you're a fan of couscous, you'll love Grimm's shrimp and Moroccan couscous salad ($16) mingling with grape tomatoes, cucumbers, almonds, red onions, a forest of fresh herbs and greens and blots of feta. Slicked with a subtly sweet pineapple dressing, it's a judiciously seasoned salad that's simultaneously healthy and heavenly .
Punch Bowl's $12 vegetarian "Hipster Hash" — a dish that Romero says outsells the corned beef hash — appeals to more than just hipsters. Every bit as good as its corned beef counterpart, the dune of kale, red potatoes, goat cheese, wild mushrooms and smoky chipotle chiles is crowned with a properly poached egg that's best punctured with a fork and woven into the heap.
Fresh-squeezed nectars, including this one called "the Harvest," a blend of housemade ginger syrup, carrot and celery juices, could easily become a routine habit. And the $5 price tag is a bargain in a market saturated with juice bars that charge double digits.
For proof that the kitchen crew thinks outside the conventional culinary crate, look no further than the chile relleno ($15), a roasted poblano pepper cradling cauliflower, quinoa, candied walnuts, queso Oaxaca and golden raisins draped in a radiant mole sauce that's garnished with leaves of cilantro. The preparation will undoubtedly change at some point, but its current incarnation is terrific.
Wonderfully reminiscent of autumn, the short barrel chai cider cocktail ($8), which is also available in ornate punch bowls, combines Buffalo Trace bourbon with sparkling wine, vanilla chai syrup and fresh lemon juice. Trust us: You'll unapologetically lust for more than one.