Restaurant News & Reviews

Review: These breweries are expanding the definition of brewpub with fine food

Trophy Tap + Table is taking part in Downtown Raleigh Restaurant Week with options of smoke chicken, braised short rib or fettucine pasta. (not all pictured here).
Trophy Tap + Table is taking part in Downtown Raleigh Restaurant Week with options of smoke chicken, braised short rib or fettucine pasta. (not all pictured here). jleonard@newsobserver.com

Say the word “brewpub” and what image comes to mind? A bar bristling with taps, of course, at least a handful of them dedicated to dispensing house-brewed beers. A casual utilitarian space for eating and drinking, with maybe a few TVs over the bar or a view of the brewing vats passing for decor highlights.

Here and there on the tables and bar top, sitting next to pints of liquid in varying hues of amber, sit plates and baskets of food. In a traditional brewpub, that food is as immutable as the rest of the scene: cheeseburgers, wings, nachos and the like – in short, food that is so closely associated with the genre that it’s called pub fare.

A new breed of brewpub is out to change that last part of the picture. They want to expand the definition of “pub fare” to include the likes of hickory-smoked N.C. mackerel and blue crab fritters, sloppy goat sandwich and loaded tots. Their menus typically change with the seasons but keep their focus on pairing well with the house brews. Some even suggest a particular beer to go with each dish.

But if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a visit to any of these new-school brewpubs is the most convincing evidence of all.

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A pioneer in the local microbrewery movement, Fullsteam has for years been a popular gathering place for food trucks. Patrons got an in-house food option this past summer, when Fullsteam’s kitchen opened. 2011 News & Observer File Photo - Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Fullsteam Brewery

The details: 726 Rigsbee Ave., Durham. 919-682-2337, fullsteam.ag

A pioneer in the local microbrewery movement (owner Sean Lilly Wilson led the 2005 Pop the Cap campaign that planted the seeds for the movement), Fullsteam has for years been a popular gathering place for food trucks. Patrons got an in-house food option this past year when Fullsteam’s kitchen came online with Chef Kyle Lee McKnight.

Given the brewery’s reputation for incorporating local produce into some of its beers (Carver sweet potato lager has become something of a signature brew), it should come as no surprise that the kitchen follows suit with a strong locavore focus. Listed under the headings of Bar Snacks, Small Plates and Handhelds, the offering is an eclectic mix of standing favorites and seasonally changing fare.

If the fried catfish sandwich I enjoyed a few weeks ago is no longer in the offing, you might find consolation in a Beaufort fried shrimp roll, or a fried Carolina Dip chicken sandwich with habanero sweet potato sauce and fermented radish slaw.

Or you might prefer to get your crispy fix in the form of fried local cauliflower with goat cheese, benne seeds and sorghum. That’s just one of several meatless options on a menu that’s especially strong in vegetarian and vegan fare. Others cover a broad flavor spectrum from local deviled eggs sprinkled with hot smoked paprika and pickled mustard seeds to an addictive sweet potato and black garlic dip served with house-baked crackers.

The menu informs you that the Southern-style sorghum and herb dumplings can be made vegan if you’re willing to lose the goat cheese and smoky bacon (a sacrifice I’m not willing to make, and more power to you if you are). But I’m happy to take the menu’s advice and order the beer that’s recommended to go with it: Fearrington Fall, an apple rye IPA that, in my opinion, could make a plate of gravel go down easy.

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To say that the food menu is as adventurous as the beer selection at Mystery Brewing would be an understatement. What’s more, the monthly changing offering lives up to the pub’s name by keeping you guessing what’s coming next. Chris Ubik

Mystery Brewing

The details: 230 S. Nash St., Hillsborough. 919-245-1325, mysterybrewing.com

Even in the world of microbreweries, where words like “quirky” and “eccentric” are commonly used to describe everything from beer bottle labels to the brewers themselves, Mystery Brewing stands out. The brewery’s name reflects its original concept as an “alternating proprietorship,” which is to say a brewery with no fixed address – the idea being to lease excess capacity from other brewers. Turns out there wasn’t much excess capacity to be had, so Mystery found a permanent home in 2013.

It wasn’t long before word got out, and people started coming from far beyond Hillsborough’s borders to explore the diverse assortment that spans the globe from Mexican black lager to English ESB, and lives up to the brewery’s name with frequent surprises such as Tripel Ginger Tripel and Papa Grande, a rum barrel-aged imperial tropical stout.

All that exploring works up an appetite, and a kitchen came in February to address the need. To say that the food menu is as adventurous as the beer selection would be an understatement. What’s more, the monthly changing menu lives up to the pub’s name by keeping you guessing what’s next.

The sweet potato hummus you enjoyed a few weeks ago is now punched up with radish and rosemary. Salmon sliders have slipped the net, and sumac-seasoned lamb sliders have taken their place. Elk sausage has fled into the forest and duck sausage has waddled in to take its place. Margherita flatbread is no longer an option, but you can choose from wild mushroom flatbread or marinated flank steak flatbread with gorgonzola and roasted tomato jam.

You get the idea. There are only a handful of constants on the menu, among them a blackened chicken club sandwich and a lavish sampler board of house-pickled fruits and vegetables. I counted eight different pickles when I ordered the sampler, including butternut squash, grapes, asparagus and spicy red peppers.

What colorful edible gems will I find scattered across the board the next time I order the house pickles? That’s a mystery, in the best sense of the word.

Trophy Tap + Table

The details: 225 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh. 919-424-7817, trophybrewing.com/tap-table

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Tap + Table in Raleigh serves Soft Pretzels with warm pimento cheese as a perfect compliment to their beers on tap from Trophy Brewing Co. The menu is as eclectic— and as fluid, figuratively speaking — as the beer selection. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Open since late January in downtown Raleigh, Tap + Table is the youngest of three siblings in the Trophy family of watering holes. All share the same beer DNA: a rotating selection of a dozen brews, covering a wide spectrum from Yard of the Month (cream ale brewed with Yates Mill corn) to Lord Stanley Scotch ale (gotta love those tap handles that are actual trophies).

But when it comes to food, each location has its own distinct personality. The menu at the brewery and taproom (trophybrewing.com) depends on which food truck stop is parked out front. Trophy Brewing + Pizza (trophybrewing.com/the-pizza) has been turning out pies that rival those at many dedicated pizzerias since 2013.

At Tap + Table, the menu is as eclectic – and as fluid, figuratively speaking – as the beer selection. Rotisserie-roasted chicken was billed as the specialty when the restaurant opened, but the menu has since morphed into a gastronomic grab bag ranging from Nashville hot wings to short rib tacos to poutine. Fans of Busy Bee’s tater tots, who were bereft when the owners closed that establishment to open Tap + Table in its place, will be happy to know that the poutine is made with tots.

Just looking for a little something to nibble alongside your beer? An order of hushpuppies with black pepper honey butter ought to do the trick. Or maybe some soft pretzels with warm pimento cheese, or cornmeal-crusted fried calamari tossed with sliced banana peppers.

If you’re trying to keep it relatively healthy, then a romaine salad with house-made Green Goddess dressing, topped with a six-minute egg, is just what the doctor ordered. If not, the burger – made with two four-ounce patties, smoked Tillamook cheddar and bacon jam – is a cardiologist’s dream.

If you want to insist that the beer must be brewed on site for a restaurant to qualify as a brewpub, then I suppose Trophy Tap + Table doesn’t. But the times they are a changing, as the saying goes, and the brewpub concept is rapidly evolving. In a year when “irregardless” can be added to the dictionary, I’d say “brewpub” is open to interpretation – a good topic of discussion, come to think of it, over a couple pints of Trophy Wife session IPA.

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