Now that Massachusetts Avenue has become an unofficial district of pubs and taverns, it’s nice to have one that’s doing something a bit different. But “curious” was the word we used the most as we dug into chef Roger Martin’s decidedly more precious and lighter-than-expected bar-food creations on our two recent visits to Ralston’s Drafthouse (635 Massachusetts Avenue, 317-493-1143). Owned by the same folks who brought the perennially popular Chatham Tap not only to Mass. Ave. but to Fishers as well, Ralston’s has revitalized the long-dormant former Agio space with a straightforward decor that emphasizes the pub’s focus on hard-to-find craft suds. Framed vintage beer labels decorate the far wall of the dining room, colorful bottle caps tile the bathroom doors, and a curtain of old beer cans dresses the host stand as you enter. Dart boards, a sleek shuffleboard table, and plentiful screens for game watching all point toward a place that’s a little more geared toward late-night quaffing than fine dining.
But none of that could explain the esoteric menu of fruit-drizzled and nut-crusted fancies that Martin is putting out for his customers. Whereas the menu at Chatham Tap has settled in to a sensible yet varied selection of fried pickles, pub pizza, hearty sandwiches, burgers, and fish and chips, Martin’s menu at Ralston’s wants to update and refresh those classics with flatbreads, sweeter sauces, and healthier sides—an homage more to the taverns of Copenhagen than Liverpool. As our sensible and fluent waitress suggested the first night we dropped in, Martin aims to pair his dishes more with the beers on offer, much in the way that chefs pair foods with wine, with an emphasis on fruit and cheese.
At times, it works. The Holyoke Sliders (available in both meat and soy, though we chose meat) are possibly the juiciest meatballs in town, literally oozing broth as you sink into the closest thing to a burger on the menu. Marinara sauce and fresh mozzarella avoid the heft you might expect in a meatball sandwich. A delectable mettwurst sausage wrapped in a crepe is another highlight whose fruit sauce doesn’t overpower the flavors. The Weizen Fish, on the other hand, is a jangling combo of blackened trout with a tangy raspberry reduction, rich pecans, and goat cheese (a cardinal sin to some chefs who rarely mix dairy with seafood).
Duck seems a more likely candidate for a peach-chipotle relish, and there’s plenty of tender duck on the Sauced Duck flatbread. (And here, we should explain—as the menu does not—that all of the entrees are served in a flatbread format.) But the sauce soaks into the brread enough that it’s hard to eat, and more pecans and gorgonzola take this one a bit over the top. Building our own sandwich from lists of “centers,” “cheese,” and “sauces” led to a fairly skimpy amount of steak on a flatbread with goat cheese instead of the camembert we ordered.
Sides are a bit hit and miss, particularly the straight-from-the-Rolled Gold-bag pretzels and a crisp but woefully underseasoned couscous salad. A cucumber slaw that’s more a shredded salad is nicely dressed with a lemon-champagne dressing, “fried” rosemary potatoes have all the salt the couscous didn’t but little of its crispness, and sweet potato waffle fries are best when not accompanied by a cream cheese dip sweetened with sugar and cinnamon. Among appetizers, the masala bean dip is one of the most well-spiced, balanced items of the bunch, though the whole beans (which are chickpeas, not the white beans promised by the menu) make dipping difficult, and pita wedges are sometimes soft and sometimes unappealingly stale or overly toasted. Pumpkin ravioli are more like fried mini pumpkin pies, tasty if a bit over sauced with an aromatic fig-and-date relish. They’re definitely more dessert-like than a starter.
Named for the Scottish engineer Alexander Ralston who first surveyed the city in 1821, Ralston’s has a similarly impressive beer and ale selection that has drawn crowds to Chatham Tap. But a quick survey of our table showed that the menu needed a bit of reverse engineering to bring the fruity innovations a tad more in line with pub traditions.