It was a dream come true for Bay Area beer geeks when Chuck Stilphen, of Oakland's Belgian beer temple The Trappist, announced that he was opening a new San Francisco bar with Denmark's famed "gypsy brewer" Mikkel Borg Bjergsø. The roving brewer is behind Copenhagen's eccentric Mikkeller Bars, and the new Tenderloin bar is the brewery's first outpost in the United States. But don't come expecting a New Nordic food wonderland or the same quirky character as his Danish spots. Despite the Mikkeller name, long European beer list, and the sleek Scandinavian design (blond wood, modern furniture, a slight industrial edge), this is a bar built with the American beer drinker in mind.
It fits in nicely with the San Francisco beer scene — it's cleaner and friendlier than Toronado, bigger than Monk's Kettle, closer to downtown than Magnolia. The 42 taps, fed by an elaborate and high-tech system nicknamed the "Flux Capacitor," are filled with Mikkeller beers and other rare and interesting brews. Whether you opt for the fruity, floral Trois Dames Saison Framboise from Switzerland or the Mikkeller Black 2011, an 18 percent alcohol-by-volume monster described on the menu as a "daring & vulgar imperial stout," you're bound to find something that will expand your beer-drinking horizons. What's even more surprising is that most of the beers are mild, even with their high potency, a refreshing change of pace from Northern California brewers' usual hop bombs.
Copenhagen is one of the most exciting food cities in the world right now, mostly thanks to the continued envelope-pushing of chef Rene Redzepi at his restaurant Noma and experimental nonprofit the Nordic Food Lab, and I was initially disappointed to find that the menu didn't reflect much of Mikkeller's Danish roots. Aside from a few Scandinavian touches like rye croutons on a salad and a salt cod cake starter, the rest of the menu from former D.C. chef Michael O'Brien is pure California, from the bacon-wrapped hot dogs to the Korean chicken wings.
But the 80-seat room is more set up for casual drinking than sit-down dining. There are stools around the large square bar and only a few tables and booths; these fill up quickly. The goal was not to open a Danish restaurant, I realized, but a place for enjoying beer — and the menu is full of things that taste good while you are drinking it.
If you come in a group, the best thing to order is the sausage platter, an assortment of all five house-made sausages arranged on a metal tray like a family crest. The mettwurst, a smoked pork summer sausage, was tender and fatty, and the smoked beef-and-pork sausage — basically a hot dog — came on a slick of chili for a bite that was pure Americana. Salsa gave the lamb merguez more of a Mexican bent than a North African one, and caramelized onions accentuated the garlicky savoriness of the saucisson a l'ail. Trying them all together gave a sense of the surprising flavor range of ground meat stuffed in a casing, and showed the kitchen's ease in borrowing from a wide range of cuisines.
Every sausage can also be ordered individually as a sandwich, served with a salad or a mountain of thick-cut fries that actually taste like potatoes. But if you're going the sandwich route, get the slow-roasted pork shoulder. It's topped with a mess of melted provolone and mayo, and just the kind of dripping, meaty indulgence you want in a pork sandwich. The only misstep was the braised broccoli rabe on top, which had a pleasant bitterness that cut through the fat but was harder to bite than the rest of the fillings, sendangering the sandwich's structural integrity. But there are always forks.
Overall, the food was uniformly tasty, though there aren't many items for lighter appetites. The marinated tofu steak on the banh mi was a decent substitute for meat, but the sandwich failed to really rise above a token vegetarian option. And the most expensive item, steak frites, didn't seem worth the $25: Though the skirt steak came a perfect medium rare, atop a salty puddle of steak sauce and juices, it came with the same pile of fries as the other, cheaper dishes.
Appetizers were the most popular orders of the tables around us, and that made sense, given the bar's convivial, beer-swigging atmosphere. Salt cod cakes were basically fishier, more pulverized crab cakes; worth getting if you want to simulate Scandinavia. A better sharing item is the lil smokies: thumb-sized, house-made hot dogs wrapped in bacon and served in a cute little frying basket. Chicken wings come with a sweet soy-honey sauce or a spicy sauce made with Korean chili paste; they didn't approach the gastronomic heights of Wing Wings, but were zesty and crispy enough to preclude any serious complaints.
Mikkeller was slammed every night I visited, with a long waiting list for tables and crowds hovering like alcoholic hummingbirds for space at the bar. It could be hard to get servers' attention, but when we did, they were friendly and helpful, taking the time to recommend beers or give advice on the menu. The crowds are a bit of a curiosity given the bar's location on a still-shady Tenderloin corner. One night a presumably homeless man was relieving himself while passed out on the sidewalk a few steps from the bar's door, a reminder that despite Mid-Market's much-heralded revitalization — and the stylish masses that have now come to sip tulip glasses of expensive imported alcohol — the neighborhood still has rough edges. Luckily, the bar, like the beers it makes, has an understated enough presence to move into an evolving neighborhood and have no trouble fitting in. Skål to the tasty side of urban renewal.