'He was a wise man who invented beer." - Plato. Thus reads one of the numerous quotations stenciled on the walls at Brewmasters Bar & Grill, which opened last March in downtown Raleigh. Scattered among the beer signs and brewery promotional posters you'd expect to see at a place with such a name, the quotations are attributed to a pantheon of intellectual and cultural icons, from Confucius to Frank Sinatra.
You get the distinct feeling that beer is more than just a product at Brewmasters. It's a revered craft. You might even say, a philosophy.
That should come as no surprise, given that the owner is local brewing guru Mark Cook. The owner of American Brewmasters, a home-brewer's supply shop in North Raleigh, Cook has introduced scores of enthusiasts to the craft. Some of his disciples have gone on to ply their skills at commercial breweries.
Which explains the fact that roughly half of the pub's 66 taps dispense North Carolina beers. That's easily the broadest selection of local brews in the Triangle, to my knowledge, and always includes a number of seasonal brews and rarities such as Duck Rabbit Paul's Bitter Holiday ESB and the potent Imperial IPA from Carolina Brewing Company.
Beer curator Les Stewart (now there's a title that tells you how important beer is here) frequently taps a special cask-conditioned brew, too. Foothills Brewing's Total Eclipse Stout, conditioned with Escazu chocolate nibs and cinnamon, slipped down the gullets of lucky customers in December.
Sticking with burgers
Needless to say, the bar sets a high, um, bar for the kitchen to live up to. In the year since Brewmasters opened (not counting its brief previous incarnation as Cherry Bomb Grill), the kitchen has struggled to clear that bar. But it has been getting closer since chef Brian O'Hara came on board in September and overhauled the menu.
O'Hara wisely kept the burgers that had been Brewmasters' main nonliquid attraction. Featuring 8 ounces of ground chuck on a locally baked bun, with options ranging from the Classic (lettuce, tomato and onion, a steal at $4.99) to the Hangover (a towering stack of avocado, bacon, fried egg, pepper jack cheese and Bloody Mary aioli that has won a cultlike following), Brewmasters' burger is indeed a keeper.
But the chef, who once worked at Enoteca Vin, and more recently brought the menu up to snuff at Tir na nOg, jettisoned much of the Brewmasters offering, including the entire entree list. In its place, he introduced sandwiches, appetizers and side dishes with a Southern accent - in part, he says, as a tribute to Joe's Place, the restaurant that had formerly occupied the space for three decades.
Black-eyed pea hummus, served with house-baked crackers, is a welcome addition. So is a salad featuring house-pickled beets, roasted red peppers, radishes and goat cheese on mixed greens.
Shrimp ceviche is a riskier proposition. It's made every other day, according to O'Hara, and judging by the tough shrimp and harsh acidity of the citrus marinade in the dish I sampled, I'm guessing I caught it at the end of day two.
If you're hankering for something different, PBR-braised fried chicken wings tossed in a sauce sweetened with local scuppernong juice ought to do the trick. Or you might throw caution to the wind and order a pint of bacon (a pint glass filled with thick cut bacon strips seasoned with a house dry rub spice blend) if you dare. I didn't.
But I did score a couple of strips of the bacon on a fried chicken sandwich that was offered as a special recently, where it was joined by house-made pimento cheese and caramelized onions on a Kaiser bun. A tasty bargain at $6.99, the deal was sweetened by including the choice of one side - in my case, a generous bowl of creamed collards.
You could put together a satisfying vegetarian meal from the sides, for that matter, with options ranging from broccoli and raisin salad to barbecue-baked black-eyed peas. There's also an unusually broad selection of vegetarian burgers and biscuit sandwiches.
Advice on the beer
Unfortunately, the biscuits are too often dry. That's a shame, because both the biscuit sandwiches I sampled from the carnivore's list - fried catfish, and Duck Rabbit Milk Stout-braised beef brisket, served open-faced - were otherwise delightful. Chef O'Hara is aware of the problem, and is working to solve it.
In the meantime, the menu offers plenty of satisfying alternatives if you choose carefully. And there's always that superlative beer selection, and bartenders sufficiently versed in the subject to discuss the relative merits of Cascade versus Centennial hops.
But don't get the wrong idea. While Brewmasters' reverence for its namesake artisans is evident, it's just as clear that they don't take themselves too seriously. For proof, you need look no further than the W.C. Fields quotation directly above the barstools: "A woman drove me to drink, and I didn't even have the decency to thank her." That one is best seen while tilting your head back to sip.