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Half right: New brewpubs attempt to reach bistro-level quality, with mixed results 

Wednesday, Jun 23 2010
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How is it that the craft beer movement has stayed populist? Considering the fact that 750 ml bottles of Belgian-style ales retail for $20 and up, and that it's now common to see page-length tasting notes on a cask-conditioned ale or an imperial IPA, it surprises me that beer still has staved off any taint of preciousness. Nevertheless, it has finally floated up into the bistro realms. We're studying beer menus at places that once would have kept a mere six-pack of Anchor Steam on hand for the boozers who were too skeered to order Barolo. And San Francisco Beer Week was celebrated at Bar Tartine, Farallon, and the Moss Room, among others.

Two of the newest beer-focused restaurants are among the city's most ambitious, though they take the brewpub in different directions. Traci Des Jardins' Public House, in AT&T Park, is doing local, sustainable takes on bar food and advancing a local draft-beer program that could make the place an off-season destination for beer geeks. Meanwhile, at Social Kitchen and Brewery in the Inner Sunset, brewmaster Rich Higgins and chef Rob Lam are weaving their beer and food together, a bistro that just so happens to ferment everything it pours.

Both places have got the beer part right. Do I really need to talk about the food?

My first encounter with Des Jardins' newly downscaled bar and restaurant was tinged with that misdirected gloating particular to America, where we believe we are committing an anarchist act by using three Bed Bath & Beyond coupons on the same visit. I had scored tickets for what turned out to be a humiliating Giants-Nationals game. Instead of filing into the stadium along with the hoi polloi, though, a friend and I pushed through a crowd of panda hats to Public House's bar, where we ordered plastic cups of Port Hot Rocks Lager ($8.50), a toasty brown lager from San Marcos; and the pub's woodsy, mellow cask-conditioned Billy Sunday Bitter ($8). Then we threaded our way to the back of the restaurant, entering directly into the ballpark with beers in hand. Every time I passed a stall selling $9 Buds, I took another swig at my craft brew, drinking it slowly to savor the schadenfreude. Oh, I felt baaaad.

I had a less thrilling experience on an offgame night, when a few co-workers and I wandered one block over from our office, claimed a table, and tried not to go Clockwork Orange from staring into a bank of TVs while we waited for our jalapeño poppers and IPAs to arrive. If you can look away, it's a handsome room for a handsome ballpark, with high rafters and bricks; wood tables sturdy enough to withstand a World Series championship riot; and, behind the main bar, a grid of silver kegs spanning floor to ceiling. Even though the house was half full, the stereo was pumped up enough to require outside voices, and most of the crowd had clustered around the strips of televisions, each upturned head a data aggregator simultaneously scanning game scores off multiple screens.

It makes sense that Des Jardins would convert Acme Chophouse, a grand idea that proved too grand for a ballpark, into a sports bar (part of the space turned into another branch of her taqueria, Mijita). Given the insta-crowds, she didn't have to hire Greg Stone and Eric Cripe (from the Jug Shop) to assemble two dozen draft beers that you would never find together in bottles, such as Firestone's limited-release Walker Reserve Porter and Marin Brewing's E.S. Chi, infused with Chinese herbs. They didn't have to convince Dave McLean from Magnolia to brew a cask-aged bitter for them, either, the beer-world equivalent of getting the Morning Benders to record a soundtrack for your Dolores Park picnic. The best kind of overachievement.

Much of the menu mirrors in concept what Public House is doing with its taps, giving space to local purveyors who, by rights, should have their own stands in the concession strip upstairs. Listed among the bar's sandwiches, salads, and snacks are Anthony's Cookies, 4505 Meats and Boccalone sausages, and Humphry Slocombe ice cream.

So why did it strike me as a cynical move for Des Jardins to replace Acme's grass-fed New York strips with Public House's potato skins ($10)? Maybe because the effect came off as genuine as Martha Stewart demonstrating how to make Jell-O shots. Or maybe because the skins turned out so blah, hollowed-out baby russets with a quarter-inch of potato flesh still left in them, deep-fried and filled with shredded beef bound together in a sticky, slightly burned-tasting reduction sauce. And jalapeño poppers (two for $5), no matter that they were made with freshly roasted peppers and served with a tomatillo sauce on the side, were still jalapeño poppers: better than the Sysco frozen ones most San Francisco sports bars are too classy to serve, but no revelation. A rare foray upward failed too: Marrowbones ($11) came to the table underroasted, and we only spooned the jiggly, translucent part onto slices of toasted bread, leaving the fibrous-looking, undercooked half to go to waste.

The best of the food was simply solid. Crisp-shelled mini corn dogs (three for $5) dipped in a sweetish batter made with masa instead of plain cornmeal — a cute reference to Mijita next door. A comfortably standard grilled cheese, fleshed out with caramelized onions ($9). A thoroughly familiar chopped salad ($8) with chicken, bacon, and cherry tomatoes. The only dish I'd specifically order again would be the lamb sliders (three for $9), the patties of ground lamb pink-centered and flecked with parsley and mint, a wisp of lemon zest floating overtop their aromas.

Given the fast-food quality of most of the AT&T Park menu, Public House's cooks don't have to accomplish anything more elevated; we'll have to wait until baseball season ends to see whether Des Jardins' steakhouse-to-pub switch succeeds. A $9.50 brat and a $6 Trumer at Public House is a steal on game days, but in January the bar will have to compete instead with Magnolia, the Toronado-Rosamunde one-two, and ThirstyBear.

If Public House's beer sommeliers work on the curatorial model, Rich Higgins, brewmaster and the public face behind the three-month-old Social Kitchen and Brewery, takes the artisan approach. For the moment, there are just five of his beers at the brewpub — no guest taps, no bottles, and no vodka, for heaven's sake. The waiters started the meal with the smartest move possible: Rather than let us grumble over the lack of choice, they brought us tastes of every beer, served in votive glasses. By the time they returned to take our drink order, we had argued over our preferences, mulled over the tasting notes on the menu, and started feeling the buzz. Extra appetizers were inevitable.

When I spoke to Higgins about Social Kitchen before all his permits came through, he painted a picture of a revolutionary brewpub. Not only is he determined to make the food beer-focused and attract more women and vegetarians, he also wants to tweak expectations with his beers—brewing low-alcohol, food-friendly styles like Social kölsch, which drinks like the cava of beers, as well as a peppery, none-too-sweet Belgian golden ale (l'Enfant Terrible), or Duvel dressed up for the Folsom Street Fair.

His beers, with the exception of a nondescript altbier, are worth stopping in for, and repeatedly. The crowd, restrained and casual with almost as many women as men, seems to be exactly whom he was marketing Social Kitchen to. It's still possible to find a stool at the wavy wooden bar on a weekday evening, but on weekend nights the bar, the ground-floor tables, and the mezzanine are all filled up (the restaurant doesn't take reservations).

Rob Lam, the chef-owner at Butterfly, has been brought on to develop the menu, highlighting sustainable, local ingredients and Higgins' beers. It's great that his cooks steam the mussels ($8) in spiced kölsch and kumquats (not that the bivalves tasted too strongly of the shoreline for us to finish them), or add a handful of toasted, malted barley to the mâche clusters and kumquats in the beer lover's salad ($8, though we learned quickly to avoid the pickled jicama threads tossed with them, which were saturated in vinegar).

Some of the dishes, such as a beef pot pie braised with Rapscallion ale ($15) and capped with a lofted, feathery puff-pastry lid, looked gorgeous but tasted like unsalted Dinty Moore. A decent-tasting mushroom bread pudding ($15) required a few minutes to get past its gray-brown, pasty appearance. Even the dessert, a deep-dish oatmeal cookie served hot from the oven, was overwhelmed by a mammoth scoop of a mismatched mint-fudge ice cream. And why, we kept wondering, were there kumquats in everything?

There were successes, including both the tempura sweet-potato fries ($5) and the regular Kennebec potato fries ($4), both up to snuff. There was a lovely roast duck breast ($17), juicy if not as pink as the waiter promised, with roasted blackberries and kumquats (ahem). And the one dudelicious dish on Lam's otherwise aspirational menu — the loco moco burger ($13) topped with ground Spam, a fat onion ring, and a fried egg — was the dish the carnivores at the table most enjoyed. We didn't like it because it marked out new territory or because it was perfectly calibrated to Higgins' brown Belgian ale. We liked it because it was good. Would that the rest of the dishes reach such heights.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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