Restaurant Review - Up on Cripple Creek

Duluth eatery stakes out hunting lodge fare and microbrews

Creek seems to have caught on as the nom du jour of steak spots north of Atlanta. Alpharetta has Killer Creek Chophouse, while in Duluth, almost facing each other across Satellite Boulevard, are Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse and Cripple Creek Taphouse & Grill.

In Cripple's case, the Creek" is meant to not only evoke that song by The Band but the kind of babbling brook where trout are always biting. Cripple Creek's hunting lodge motif may be a bit artificial, but it's not as aggressively synthetic as some chain restaurants. Repeat visitors can develop a taste for its cooking and its cozy atmosphere, although if you live outside the Duluth area, it may not be worth a long drive out of your way.

Cripple Creek can be found in the orbit of Gwinnett Place mall on Mall Boulevard, just off heavily trafficked Pleasant Hill Road (and speaking of names, this one, though technically involving both "road" and "hill," is far from appropriate). With a painting of a bear fishing in a river on its exterior, Cripple Creek anchors a small brick strip mall and shares a spare courtyard with other restaurants.

Inside, Cripple Creek isn't as authentically rustic as, say, the Cabin on Buford Highway, but it features a comfortable, Field & Stream interior with soothing dark colors. There's a stuffed coyote and a stack of logs next to the wood-burning fireplace, which heats both the dining room and outer porch. Manly accoutrements include fishing rods and animal trophies (although the glasses, incongruously, bear the logos of Oxygen, the cable channel for women). The soothing lighting and warm colors — like the dark gray of the poured concrete dining room floor — help foster a casual atmosphere. Maybe a little too casual, as at times some dishes take longer to prepare than you might reasonably expect. At lunch it's been nearly deserted, as if it really were in a remote mountain location.

Cripple Creek's primary selling point may be as a tavern, as it boasts 40 microbrews on tap, with the taps, sporting each brewery's own design, lined up at the ready behind the bar. I'm not sure how strong the martini-and-cigar fancier market is these days, but it's clearly part of the Creek's target customer base, with theme nights and martini names like Anti Freeze and Dirty & Bruised.

Alcohol even works into some of the recipes, like the Tequila Shrimp and the Guinness Marinated Sirloin Steak ($10.95). You need a better nose than mine to identify the beer by brand, but the mellow flavor of the ale subtly infuses the generous cut of juicy meat.

Some of Cripple Creek's dishes strive to be fancier than they need to be, as if the restaurant's working too hard to cater to yuppies. I ordered fried chicken ($8.95) as a Monday lunch special, vaguely expecting that a drumstick with crispy skin would be involved. What I got was a boneless fried breast with a sweet, honey-tasting breading that wasn't bad at all, but still seemed more complicated than necessary.

The cedar-grilled salmon BLT ($8.95) proved to be a combination that sounded better in theory than it tasted in practice. As a sandwich vehicle, the heated, somewhat greasy croissant slices weren't sturdy enough to support the fillers. The bacon, while not tender, was satisfyingly smoky, but the salmon cut, though certainly thick, was pretty dull. The sandwich seemed in need of some kind of sauce, or even a little mayo, to bring it together.

The sides are all tasty and serviceable, especially the whipped sweet potatoes (an ideal dish for autumn), the garlicky mashed potatoes and the white gravy made to order. The white cheese grits are neither too sharp nor too runny, while the peppery sauteed vegetables mostly remain crunchy.

Entrees I've enjoyed at earlier visits include the steak-cut swordfish and the hearty, substantial buffalo steak. Like the other red meat cuts I've sampled at Cripple Creek, the buffalo proved a bit chewy. Still, while masticating you can listen to the piped-in pop hits of the 1960s and '70s, and diagram such sentences as, "One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do," and "In the desert you can remember your name, because there ain't no one for to give you no pain." The steaks may even get you in touch with your carnivorous side, tempting you to seek out an actual mountain or creek, far away from Pleasant Hill.??