Preparing for Takeoff: 100th Bomb Group

100th Bomb Group   

After being shuttered for several years, a greatly enlarged 100th Bomb Group Restaurant and Banquet Facility has reopened at a new home several hundred yards down Brookpark Road after airport expansion claimed its former location. The new facility, open since May, is vast, with several dining rooms, a spacious bar and a labyrinth of party and banquet rooms that can accommodate anything from an intimate gathering to a 300-guest blowout.

Like the old building, the new 100th Bomb Group drips with "Greatest Generation" nostalgia. Photos of many of the World War II crews from the outfit that gave the restaurant its name line the walls. Fake battle scars on the building's exterior and abandoned military equipment in the parking lot give the place the look of an English farmhouse pressed into service as an air corps headquarters. Music from the era "Vera Lynn singing" "White Cliffs of Dover" and "We'll Meet Again" is piped into the dining room. In the rest rooms you'll hear bits of World War II news broadcasts as you wash your hands and straighten your tie.

The restaurant, a Specialty Restaurant Corp. property, is part of a California-based chain founded by a World War II aviation buff. The reconstruction cost millions and took months longer than planned, producing a restaurant that's much grander and more upscale than before. The quilted tablecloths, exposed beams and stucco walls that lent the old building a rough-around-the-edges charm have been replaced with starched white linen and a good deal of polished brass, marble and crystal. Surprisingly, the view of jet planes taking off and landing at Hopkins International Airport is, if anything, even better at the new location.

The restaurant has a lot going for it. Firstly, there's a pre-established customer base of folks who prized the original Bomb Group. Then there's its size, airport proximity, pleasant décor, great view, and " not least of all " friendly service from a well-trained wait staff. Success should be a slam-dunk. Sad to say, it's not. The menu is short on originality and the food sometimes uninspired. It has gotten better in the last few months, but still has a way to go before it's battle-ready.

First disappointment is the appetizer selection. There's nothing here to challenge the kitchen or the customer. Just about everything has a freezer-to-microwave-to-table look and taste. Most expensive is the Maryland crab cake at $10.95, also available as an entrée. It is bigger than most, but a bit less filler and a bit more crab flavor would be appreciated. One bright spot is the accompanying puddle of lemon, dill and tarragon-flavored sauce. Buffalo wings ($6.95) are quite spicy but the traditional sides of celery sticks and bleu cheese dressing cool things off. Spinach and artichoke dip ($7.95), accompanied by spicy tri-color tortilla chips, is billed as "New Orleans style," though what makes it that is not clear. It's not bad, if a tad saltier than I would like. Crab-stuffed mushrooms ($9.95) get the same criticism as the crab cake - they seem to contain more bread crust than crustacean.

Your best choices are the calamari, nice and crispy and served with a peppery dipping sauce ($7.95) and a respectable shrimp cocktail ($9.95). If you'd like to share with the group, the Captain's Combination Platter ($17.95) provides a sampler of crab-stuffed mushrooms, escargot-stuffed mushrooms, Buffalo wings, spinach artichoke dip and delectably crispy onion straws.

All entrées at 100th Bomb Group are served with your choice of beer cheese soup ($3.95 a la carte) or a tossed green salad. The soup is creamy, cheesy and quite good. The Parmesan-flavored Melba toast that accompanied, it must be said, was one of the tastiest items we sampled. The green salad ($4.95 a la carte) is a crisp mix of fresh greens, mostly iceberg, with cherry tomatoes and kalamata olives. House-made dressings were heavily laced with dried herbs and seasonings.

Entrées include the expected pasta, seafood and red meat selections as well as a number of comfort food standards such as meatloaf and pot roast, labeled "Homestyle Cooking." While entrées are paired with appropriate vegetable or starch side dishes, one recent visit gave the indication of a kitchen cruising on autopilot and in dire need of a strong hand at the controls. Baked potatoes were underdone, smashed potatoes reeked of dehydrated garlic, vegetables were badly trimmed and sloppily cut into unmanageable hunks.

The restaurant used to be known for the quality of its steaks and prime rib, but to be brutally honest, most of the beef we sampled of late was lacking in flavor and, on occasion, tenderness. Most popular is the sizzling steak, a top sirloin billed as USDA Prime, served with sautéed mushrooms and onions and flavored with a Burgundy wine reduction ($20.95). It can only be described as inconsistent - sometimes tender and flavorful, other times chewy and unpleasant. Prime rib ($20.95 for a 10-ounce serving, $25.95 for 14 ounces) was served medium rare, as ordered, but was utterly lacking any of the rich, beefy flavor we associate with the dish. Other choices include New York strip ($24.95) and skirt steak in chimichurri sauce ($15.95).
Teriyaki-marinated pork chops, offered from time to time as a special ($26.95), were so overwhelmed by the flavor of raw, bottled teriyaki that it was almost impossible to tell if they were indeed pork chops or chicken or lamb or, perhaps, cardboard.

Charcoal-grilled salmon served with lemon-thyme cream sauce ($17.95) was acceptable, not outstanding. A seafood brochette (offered as a daily special at $25.95) included shrimp, scallops and fresh tuna threaded on a skewer with fresh vegetables and broiled ($25.95). Strangely, the seafood was thoroughly cooked but the vegetables arrived half raw and without even the faintest hint of a grill mark. We decided the only way the kitchen could have achieved this feat of legerdemain was to cook the seafood items separately then line them up on the kabob with raw veggies. But why? To what end? Numerous tries to contact the management for an explanation were rebuffed, leaving the mediocre food to speak for itself.

After the disappointing appetizers and entrées we were prepared to be let down by desserts, but were, instead, surprised by their generally high quality. Crème brûlée ($6.95) is outstanding, smooth and creamy with intense vanilla flavor. The lemon torte ($4.95) is a wonderfully refreshing way to end a meal while chocolate cake (also $4.95) is rich, dark and moist. At least there was the smooth landing.

The 100th Bomb Group, 20920 Brookpark Road, Cleveland (across from Hopkins International Airport), (216) 267-1010. Hours: lunch: Mon-Sat 11 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; dinner: Mon-Thu 4:30 - 10 p.m., Fri-Sat 4:30 - 11 p.m., Sun 4:30 - 9 p.m. Buffet brunch Sun, 9:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m., $19.95 before 10:30 a.m., $24.95 thereafter. Dining room and rest rooms are easily accessible. All major credit cards accepted.

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