Restaurant review: Bareburger has a great aesthetic, inconsistent execution

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From the April 24, 2014 edition

Bareburger talks the talk and sometimes walks the walk. A popular and ostensibly enlightened New York City-based chain specializing in all organic, pasture-raised burgers (which include beef and vegan options, but also elk, bison and boar), the new Bareburger in the Short North shows plenty of zeitgeist-y style, plus some room for improvement.

Radically transforming the once-wacky Yankee Trader space — but honoring that long-running, gag-gift-and-costume shop by displaying its old sign inside — Bareburger’s rustic-chic design strikes a nice balance between contemporary and classic.

There’s lots of reclaimed wood, a handsome bar, huge windows, plus nudging touches like punning bear heads (whimsically painted; actually there are bear references everywhere), chandeliers made with flatware, columns wrapped in rope and high-backed booths gradated like amplitude-increasing, square waves. Tasteful golden oldies play (Velvet Underground, The Pixies), and jeans-clad servers wear black T-shirts proclaiming “I (heart) Grass” (causing me to double-check Bareburger wasn’t actually based in Colorado).

Drinkwise, five of seven taps pour craft Ohioans ($6-$7 for 20 ounces), all wines are listed as organic or sustainable, and there’s a handful of cocktails named after agricultural pioneers. From the latter category, the pleasant G.W. Carver ($10) is a cachaca-powered, punch-like quaff whose fruitiness was tempered some by fresh fennel fronds.

Among Bareburger’s mostly fried appetizers, the Parmesan Panko Crusted Zucchini Sticks ($9) are a mouthful — to pronounce and eat — and a good choice. Their crispy-not-greasy, thick herbed jackets held whopping big pieces of steaming-hot vegetables flattered by their paprika mayo and buttermilk ranch side dips.

Also mammoth but less successful was the Charred Caesar salad ($6). Served in the kind of hulking bowl you might eat stew from at a chuckwagon, I appreciated its panini-like dry toast and the romaine’s smoky sear, but the mildly garlicked creamy dressing desperately needed a brightener — lemon, vinegar, mustard, salt, something — to rouse it out of puny-flavored sluggishness.

Burgers come a la carte (I added not-crispy $3 hand-cut fries, plus big, battered and good $5 onion rings) and can be custom-built or selected from suggested models. Following the latter strategy, I munched through a quartet, the best of which were the wildest.

One of these was the messy and zesty, if thankfully far-from-fiery, Habanero Express made with elk ($11). The just-pink meat was lean and dense, with pleasant hints of venison and lamb. Pepperjack cheese, spicy pickles, poblano relish and habanero-chipotle mayo helped bring the craveable sandwich even more alive.

Also arriving on Bareburger’s OK brioche bun was the likewise fun-to-eat, named-after-weed Maui Wowie ($12). Made with not-boring boar, its juicily seared patty tasted a bit like fat-restrained pork sausage. Providing sweet and smoky accompaniment were turkey bacon, grilled pineapple, piquante peppers, fried onions and smoked mozzarella.

I wasn’t so “wowied” by my Bareburger Original ($10). Assembled with lean-and-clean beef sporting a decent sear — I requested medium-rare but received medium-well — it was dressed with colby cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and (barbecue-ish) “special sauce.” This resulted in a burger that was perfectly fine, if not so memorable. Ditto for the thick and alright but dry-ish Black Bean Vegan ($10.45), on a big-but-not-pliant oat-y multigrain roll with vegan “cheese” that clung to the roof of my mouth.

Service was well-informed, friendly and mostly efficient ... except after one meal, when I waited 20 long and pointless minutes for my credit card to return because my MIA server “thought someone else had taken care of it.”