The Margarita at PineCreek goes comfy on the cheap with its gastropub-themed bar menu

Everything and nothing is new at the Margarita at PineCreek.

That's the M.O. for a place that arguably produces the most creative comfort food in town, whose kitchen works around a handful of classic dishes to change the dinner menu at least every three days and the lunch menu weekly.

The lounge menu doesn't morph quite that quickly. It's every October that the Margarita unveils a new assortment of dishes, united by a predetermined theme, to be served in the downstairs bar until May. (Come summer, it rotates in a fresh outdoor patio menu.)

This year's idea is "gastropub," which a Margarita newsletter describes as "a place with a warm, inviting atmosphere that serves seasonal, sophisticated and creative, yet unpretentious food, with an extensive beer and wine list that is an integral part of the concept."

Just how unpretentious are we talking here?

How about a plate of deviled eggs?

Initiated with the common mayo and mustard, chef Eric Viedt's quartet of egg halves ($4) find heat and character with smoked Serrano pepper and paprika and a splash of Sriracha. Next to them comes a delicate salad of house-pickled onions and sliced fennel mixed with pea shoots in light vinaigrette.

Familiar and comforting at their core, they still manage to put your mom's version to shame.

Price points

Though it's regarded as one of the most sustainability-conscious outfits in the Springs, the Margarita provides eclectic gourmet lunches fairly affordably (entrée with soup or salad, bread and dessert, $11). And its bang-up Sunday brunches (see "Brunch magnifique," Nov. 21, 2007) are worth the cost ($9 to $17 per plate).

It can, however, get pricey at night with its prix fixe structure: three courses for $34 per person, five for $40 and six paired with wine for $75. That's why the lounge menu is so satisfying; with items ranging from $3.50 to $12, it offers an evening experience that will fill you up but won't obliterate your budget.

On a recent Thursday night, Viedt escorted us down a clunky spiral wooden staircase lit by a dozen or so tiny, multicolored decorative chandeliers. As we slid into microfiber bench seats, he explained that he was spending his first night of two weeks mastering the front of the house, something he'd not yet done in his 10 years at the restaurant. He trusts his longtime kitchen crew to handle the food when he and chef Cathy Werle are off the line.

[Disclaimer: As Viedt was greeting and knows all our Indy food staff, eating anonymously wasn't possible. But we don't believe extraordinary attention was paid to our dishes.]

After our aforementioned eggs, Viedt delivered a wood block with six house-made chorizo and shrimp wonton triangles ($6.50) next to a ramekin of remoulade (a Creole dip). When dipped and bitten, the triangles oozed with hot jack and cream cheese, nipped us with the remoulade, then lit us up with the chorizo's chile spice. Simply kick-ass delicious.

We next learned that New York-born Viedt's large Polish family gifted him a love of pierogies. He stuffs his ($10) with a variety of naturally slightly sweet winter squash and serves them under caramelized onions next to a dollop of sour cream. They're as good as those I've eaten in Poland.

For our final plate, we crunched on the Welsh rarebit (a dish that dates back nearly 300 years or so) with rabbit confit ($7.50). Though it sounds highbrow, it's really poor man's food at its finest: thick toast slices and bunny hunks under a heavy melted cheese and ale gravy.

Garlic and galumpkis

The following night, the lounge's handful of tables bustled with an attentive crowd for the ACME Bluegrass Band. We began our sampling with a generous dish of delicious warm olives (a stupid-cheap $4) served atop spent lemon and orange slices in an olive oil bath seasoned with garlic, fennel and Guajillo chile flecks.

Next, seared scallops ($12) drowned in Bouillabaisse jus butter sauce (a super-reduced fish soup in ample butter) came under caramelized fennel and two toast points. On the bread: a lovable garlic bomb of a rouille spread (a classic French emulsion of garlic, olive oil, breadcrumbs and spices). This was the go-for dish, my favorite on the menu.

Sometime around an impressive vocal performance on the grass classic "Ruby," we dove into the Margarita's classic sesame chicken salad ($8.50), a dish that owner Pati Davidson popularized long before Viedt's time. Over crisp greens, chunks of roasted chicken, grated carrot and Swiss cheese and peas, we spooned mayo-textured dressing, bursting with garlic and onion.

Though overall a good salad, we fell harder for our á la carte order off the main dining room's menu: portobello and rice galumpkis (stuffed cabbage rolls; $27 with a soup and salad upstairs). Smothered in a zesty tomato sauce and topped in grilled broccolini and asparagus spears, it was simply a vegetarian's feast.

I admit, "feasting" from the upstairs menu is sort of cheating. But I assure you that thanks to the innovative lounge menu, you can drop that F-word even if you don't drop $27 for an entrée.



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