Dining during the holiday shopping season can be a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, there are only so many hours in the day, and chances are that a bunch of those hours are going to have to be spent at the mall, collecting presents for siblings, parents, aunts, uncles and BFFs.
But do you really want to face down another chicken sandwich from Chick-Fil-A or blue cheese burger from Chili's?
And yet, it's not like you can just plunk down $100 on a gourmet meal at one of the area's finer restaurants. Xboxes don't come cheap, right?
Uncle Buck's Brewery and Steakhouse to the rescue. This vast eatery is inside the Bass Pro Shops in Grapevine, just across Texas 26 from Grapevine Mills mall. (It's also right next to an Embassy Suites, and seems to draw a large number of patrons from the hotel.) You can get your shopping done and then escape here, where the main dining room is decorated like a hunting lodge. It features vaulted ceilings and seems to run the length of a football field. The prices hit the holiday sweet spot, too: It's not much more expensive than a Chili's or Macaroni Grill, but the food and service are a notch higher.
(And, no, there's no connection to the classic John Candy film from the 1980s -- though there is one to Big Buck Brewery and Steakhouse in Gaylord, Mich. The company that runs Big Buck used to operate both restaurants, until Uncle Buck's came under new ownership and, albeit only slightly, changed its name.)
We started with two appetizers, the smoked wahoo dip ($9.99) and the venison-stuffed mushrooms ($8.95). The dip was the one certified bummer of the night, a mayonnaisey, overly fishy tasting concoction that left a slightly acrid aftertaste. The accompanying club crackers would have been a charmingly trashy touch, if only you actually wanted to pile the dip onto them.
Fortunately, the mushrooms provided a quick recovery. Despite the menu's proclamation that they come "smothered" in cheddar, in fact the combination of the smoky, rich venison sausage with the creamy cheddar was just right. The mushrooms were neither too firm nor too soggy, as is so often the case when a stuffed mushroom dish comes out of a restaurant kitchen.
Our three entrees hit three different marks on the spectrum: excellent, solid, meh. The best was the filet mignon, which was flawlessly cooked and melt-in-your-mouth juicy. The price ($18.99 for 6 ounces; $24.99 for 9 ounces) was a lot more reasonable than what you usually pay for such a choice cut of beef. Our request that the encrusted salmon ($15.99) be prepared without the Parmesan crust was ably handled by our excellent server, and the dish completely hit the mark.
Only the third entree left us a bit cold: The lamb chops ($14.95) were too salty and a tad fatty -- though cooked precisely to our request of medium-rare. Of the sides we tried, the asparagus was flavorful, though we thought the portion was a little stingy for $2.99.
Uncle Buck's is a brewery that conjures up its own ale, so we had to try a few beers ($4.25 per pint; $8.95 for a seven-beer sampler). The hefeweizen had a nice, light flavor, but seemed to lack the hints of fruitiness that we usually associate with this brew. The Sportsman Ale, however, was a knockout -- a hearty but not overpowering blend of its blonde and red ales.
Oh, and if you finish dinner and realize that you still haven't found the perfect gift for your bait-casting uncle, you won't have to go very far: Bass Pro Shops stays open until 10 each night, except Sunday.