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Feature Fri Mar 12 2010
I've been a bad writer recently. Which, in my particular case, means mostly that I've been a bad eater recently. With long hours at my office, little energy in the kitchen and, after finishing my taxes this past week, less cash on hand, eating out has become a recent luxury. Ham sandwiches, yogurts and granola bars have been more of the recent norm than a new dish on Lula's menu or special charcuterie option at Old Town Social (or getting a table after a reasonable wait at Revolution Brewing -- still unsuccessful!) However, a recent business trip has taken me to the westernmost reaches of our fine state, and while there has been little time for much more than work there has, blessedly, been eating out! Should you find yourself across the river from Iowa and looking for a bite, I feel I can now advise your gustatory tour of at least one of the four Quad Cities with a smidgen of authority and the warm glow of an impending food coma.
Rock Island sits right on the Mississippi River, and is linked by a well-lit arched bridgeway to the neighboring Iowa cities of Davenport and Bettendorf. A longtime railway hub and ordnance factory town, Rock Island was created by the commercial booms of what feels like an increasingly distant past. It's where Abraham Lincoln cut his legal teeth and the Blues Brothers were born. And, it's the birthplace of Black Hawk! As in, the guy they named the Chicago Black Hawks after. Chew on that! The population sign on the Great River Road lists Rock Island at about 40,000 people, and as you drive in from rolling farm hills to glimpses of flashing sun on the waters of the river, it feels both quaint and sprawling simultaneously.
This is my second trip in two years to Rock Island, and second dinner at the Blue Cat Brew Pub, a warm, warehouse-looking space between the pedestrian-friendly downtown plaza and banks of the Mississippi. Past the Daiquiri Factory and Le Figaro French bistro, Blue Cat is a welcoming and airy space that seems to affirm Rock Island's destination cred (and NOT just as the landfall next to a gambling riverboat). It feels unoppressively authentic -- the kind of place where you can buy a t-shirt, but it's up to you to interpret the historic and artistic decor. The downtown square itself gives the city a college town sort of feel -- wide sidewalks and cross-hatched parking spaces divide slow-moving traffic from the bustling storefronts of cafes, bars, and a sprinkling of gallery spaces. There is a nearby downtown campus for Augustana College, though the age range out and about seems more diverse than just simply an undergraduate crowd.
The "Blue Cat" becomes a more obvious mascot as you approach the building and notice the large catfish painted up near the top along with tthe name. The menus inside also reflect, for the most part, the location and traditions of the area -- a faintly nautical theme guides the menu design (a flying fish icon next to some items denotes a preparation time of 15 minutes or less, if you're in a hurry), and the back cover boasts a poem by a local author, bemoaning the commoditization of culture through a nice supermarket metaphor. Chalkboards and whiteboards around the bar list the brews currently available, and a glassed-off room of brewing vats and equipment is the focal point of the room, separated from the front door by only the bar.
The beers are all made locally, and the Blue Cat is part of several associations for small and local microbreweries. With selections ranging from a popular IPA to a cranberry beer, their production seems strong, and the website boasts of even more seasonal and specialty creations -- many highlighted at their quarterly beer dinners. I tried a few on this recent trip, heading first for the Wigged Pig Wheat, since I'm just that kind of girl. The lightest of the beers I tried, it had a gentle sweetness and soapy edge -- refreshing, and probably a good beer for a hot day. The Finnegan's Irish Stout was at the other end of the spectrum, fuming with molasses though not strongly sweet, a big meaty beer with brown-sugar colored foam that clung to the glass like its life depended on it. I only tried a sip from a friend's, who noted it could have been a meal in and of itself. I also tried the Ramblin' Raspberry, which was my surprise favorite -- a good balance of fruit scent without overpowering the pleasantly red beer itself. The corresponding beer page from the Blue Cat website sums it up much more scientifically than I could, though suffice to say, it was some good beer. The brew pub also offers "Beer School" bottles from a much wider area to anyone interested in trying.
In terms of the edibles available, the best bets are probably the dishes that seem most at home in the area: pulled pork, barbequed brisket, meatloaf, etc. The menu features a wide enough variety beyond these, including salads, pasta and soup options in addition to the "Brew Pub Broilers," and "Regional Favorites" -- though venturing beyond those categories seems unnecessary. A sausage platter comes with whatever's on hand: Polish, Andouille, Italian, and perhaps some homemade selections from the chef. The waiter also didn't bat an eye when the request was made to include a side of bacon with this dish. It arrived with the bacon added to the rest of the plate, anchored by a well of spicy brown mustard, mashed potatoes and some garlic toasts.
In the past, I've tried the Southern Dixieland special of pulled pork over corn muffins, with cole slaw on top. Which was great -- kind of what KFC's Famous Bowls should have been. This year I opted for the Ahi Tuna sandwich, served with warm German potato salad. The fish was good, cooked to a nice medium with a minimal balsamic reduction splash. But the best part of the sandwich was the fully Midwestern garlic sauce that dressed it -- no Asian or Caribbean treatments for this tuna, and rightly so. The consensus seemed to be about the same around the table -- the regional favorites are favorites for a reason.
When I was snapping photos after dinner, one of the bartenders asked me if I'd seen the Catfish Buddha, and kindly walked me to the entryway to show me a mosaic sculpture of a genial-looking fish. Apparently just as Chicago had its cow competition for public art many years ago, Rock Island had a similar event using a standard catfish mold and letting local artists have their way with it. When asked what kind of people usually come into the Blue Cat, he thought for a moment before saying, "We're here for the artists." More than the college kids or the gambling boat crowd, the Blue Cat has stayed in business for 16 years to serve a core arts community, whose fingerprints can be seen all over town, from the poster at our hotel advertising Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida by the Prenzie Players, to the murals painted in the alleyways and blank buildings walls around town. The Rock Island city website lists several performing arts venues and an artists' walking tour as major attractions. I'd go so far as to say the Blue Cat should be listed as one as well.
Blue Cat Brew Pub
113 18th Street, Rock Island