The first time I went to Brewer’s Table, the upstairs Surly beer pairing restaurant which floats above the massive 350-seat Surly brew hall, I wasn't that impressed. The whole universe of the beer-pairings was baffling, the servers seemed to intimate that whatever I wanted was going to be great—and I knew this was likely untrue. Well a few months ago, chef Jorge Guzman re-organized dinner with a tasting menu format and if there’s a better beer-tasting menu to be had in the United States, I’d be very much surprised.
The Brewer’s Table has been both significantly reduced and focused, and the whole thing has been organized in a simple way. Like Alma, Heartland, and other local restaurants, it now operates with a fixed menu of different categories. You pay one fee, currently $70, for both beer pairings and food, and proceed to pick a first course, a second, an entrée, and a dessert. Each course comes paired with a beer; some are 3-ounce pours, as with dessert beers, while others are 8- or 10-ounce pours. (There’s an à la carte option to skip the pairings, but you’d pay $72 for all the food courses, without beer, so who would do that?) If you’re with a date who likes to share, each of you can work it out to taste half the menu and 8 beers between you, plus there are ample vegetarian options.
Everything I tried on this new menu was spectacular. An appetizer of quick-cured and fast-poached arctic char with pickled mustard seeds, wee disks of potatoes, cured egg yolk and sour cream, and too many different sorts of compressed, frozen, charred, pickled and otherwise made extra-cool cucumbers was a dream of a fish dish. It was fresh and light, creamy and lush, perky and zingy. It paired beautifully with Surly Hell, the crystalline lager’s lightness made even more clear by the different sour elements of the fish, and the palate-cleansing nature of the beer allowed you to taste each element of the dish afresh. Nailed it!
A sort of Caesar salad with white and green asparagus, salty, crunchy sea beans, puckery Spanish anchovies, and lush, crisp sticks of fried chick-pea cake was equally impressive, just a kicky can-can of lively textures. This dish too worked in surprising and lovely ways with the Surly Pils. It’s a bracing dry-hopped beer, with a finish so hoppy it’s nearly dusty, which interacted with the green elements of the salad like a fresh ocean breeze on a dry-heat day.
The vegetarian tamale was every kind of terrific. A very light milk, masa, and fresh corn tamale was charred and paired with pickled beech mushrooms, guajillo chili marinated abalone mushrooms, a squash mole, an ancho-chili sauce, pickled peppers, fresh cotija cheese and bright sprigs of cilantro. The tamale itself had a pure corn taste, and the other elements add a sort of back and forth between different earthy, sour, and light elements. The pairing with the classic scouring caramel of Surly Bender made that old familiar beer seem fresh again, the malt sweeter, the vanilla of it more vivid.
I could go on like this about nearly everything I tried. I’ll conclude with one more savory rave; the pork guajillo was a gorgeous and extravagantly textured, superbly flavored dish. A chunk of pork was marinated in the achiote and spice mix recado rojo until it acquired a deep veil of spice. It was grilled and served with a dozen intricately-flavored elements including salty poufs of chiccarones floating here and there like crunchy clouds, a devastatingly rich couple inches of cured, confited, fried pork belly, grilled and marinated slabs of pineapple, succulent and thick leaves of malabar spinach, candied rutabaga, hibiscus leaves, a mojo verde pureed salsa—and more. Yet, all of this flavor wasn’t anything like too much. It all came together like so many playful little riffs of jazz on an otherwise clear melody. That it worked wonderfully with the jalapeno-infused Surly Hell was mind boggling, but it did—the richness cutting the spice like a long, quiet rest in music that lets you hear it all better.
Desserts by pastry chef Joanna Bisner were astonishing. A light and airy horchata tres leches cake with smoked cinnamon was paired with a citrus sorbet that just entwined in the most sinewy and surprising way with one of Surly’s tougher beers—the oak-aged, Brett-touched, Belgian saison Misanthrope. It showed Misanthrope’s more graceful—dare I say lilting—side, and the beer prevented the cake from ever seeming too sweet. A fudgy s’mores cake with marshmallow, pomegranate, and salt went prettily with the cult sensation Darkness. I’ve had a lot of beer and dessert pairings in my time, and I think this blew them all out of the water. Also: There’s an option for a $6 loaf of Russian rye that Bisner makes, with whipped butter. Get it—it’s salty-seed topped and terrific.
So: A revisit rave. I was skeptical years ago when Surly first announced their intention to be the best beer-pairing restaurant in the country, and it took a while, but I think they got there.