Three cheers for chef Jorge Guzman.
Yes, the world seems to have rightly discovered the staggering accomplishment of his bosses, Surly Brewing Co. masterminds Omar Ansari and Todd Haug. They not only persuaded the Minnesota Legislature to change the state’s law regarding taprooms, but then they went out and built a gasp-inducing facility worthy of Surly’s deservedly exalted reputation among beer drinkers.They didn’t stop there. Another one of their upending-the-status-quo actions was to recruit Guzman.
In the casual Beer Hall & Restaurant and the ambitious Brewer’s Table, Guzman’s cooking manages to simultaneously reflect, enhance and celebrate his brewing colleagues’ virtuosity. Yes, this so-called “destination” brewery lives up to its ambitions, and then some. There’s nothing like it, anywhere in the country.
Let’s start with the beer hall, which has quickly become a must visit for locals who want to rub the Twin Cities’ stratospheric quality-of-life index in the faces of out-of-towners. And why not? Aside from being People Watching Central, it’s big enough to host a monster truck rally and yet runs like clockwork. It’s also home to 20 or so insanely well-made beers.
Best of all, the food — affordable, accessible and beer-centric — is no afterthought.
Despite routinely facing crowds usually associated with a Prince appearance (“Our ‘busy’ is a thousand people,” deadpanned Guzman), the food flies out of the kitchen at the speed of the Pluto space probe.
Yet Guzman maintains an impressively consistent commitment to quality; craft is not subsumed to the avalanche of demand.
You want a crack at an astonishingly good burger? Guzman has your back, turning out a double-decker dressed with shredded lettuce, a hefty dose of American cheese and a tarragon-kissed mayo-and-ketchup sauce, all stuffed into a golden, sweet potato-enriched bun. It’s a Top 10 effort, and that’s saying something in today’s superheated burger environment.
Frankly, if Guzman did nothing more than crank out a gotta-have cheeseburger, he probably has created lifetime job security. But at Surly, that’s just the beginning.
If there’s an academy somewhere that’s awarding black belts in charcuterie, Guzman & Co. would surely qualify, with expertly prepared and artfully embellished terrines, rillettes and pâtés that pair beautifully with ice-cold lagers. (“That’s our German side,” Guzman said. “Omar’s mom is German.”)
The zesty sausages aren’t produced on the premises — they’re the work of St. Paul’s Big Steer Meats, made to Guzman’s specifications — but they’re tailor-made for beer drinkers, particularly the spicy all-beef link and the gyro-like marguez, with its hot harissa bite juxtaposed against cool spearmint.
A BBQ joint on steroids
Those who have tasted the first-rate brisket and pork shoulder will not be surprised to learn that Guzman, a St. Louis transplant, was toying with opening a barbecue joint before being tapped by Surly.
Following time-tested Texan principles, he keeps the process simple, embellishing premium locally sourced meat with just salt, pepper and smoke. For the beef, it’s oak, while the fattier pork gets a dose of pungent hickory sweetened with apple and cherry wood. The pork is delicious, but the real revelation is the mouth-melting, fat-trimmed brisket; no wonder monthly sales hover between 2 and 3 tons.
They’re served platter-style, with a parade of well-executed sides. At the top of the hit parade is the baked beans recipe to end all baked beans recipes, a rich, slow-cooked casserole of black turtle beans, white cannellis and creamy red beans fortified with that brisket and pork and brightened with cilantro and dill. Next time, I’m grabbing an order for the road.
Pretzels? Guzman has enlisted Joachim “Aki” Bernt of Aki’s Bread Haus in northeast Minneapolis to craft big old chewy monsters (to the tune of about 1,500 per week), served with a first-rate pimento cheese and pungent Boetje’s mustard.
There’s a well-garnished cheese selection, including a sublime Minnesota-made Camembert, its rind washed in Surly-brewed beer.
And although they’re armed with an easy-to-follow business plan — “make food that tastes great with beer” — Guzman and chef de cuisine Michael Gregoire aren’t afraid to step away from the same-old, same-old. Toasted farro, so enticingly nutty, is the backbone of a salad of succulent cold-smoked salmon, an artfully runny five-minute egg and cleansing jolts of lime and blood orange; simultaneously light and hearty, it’s easily my favorite salad of the moment.
I love the brawny bruschettas, slices of hearty grilled multigrain (from Turtle Bread Co.) topped with just-picked ingredients from a network of local farms. Currently, it’s luscious burrata buried under pickled and fresh cherry tomatoes and a hint of oregano. Wonderful.
Catfish — a rarity in these parts — is a major hit. (“It’s just such a delicious fish, and people need to know that,” Guzman said.) The kitchen does little to the moist, flaky fish beyond treating it with a crunchy coating of crushed tortillas and pepitas. Skillful frying and plenty of hot sauce also play key parts.
If Guzman hasn’t been making pork rinds forever, it sure tastes as if he has. A vigorously vinegary toss of pickled vegetables, as well as spicy chickpeas scooped with crispy, cumin-dusted tortilla chips, are destined to replace Corn Nuts and cheese curds in the beer drinker’s snack pantheon.
There are issues. Desserts come off as something of an afterthought. A new pastry chef, Joanna Biessener, will hopefully instigate a turnaround. Gnocchi peppered with seasonal vegetables is a welcome nod to meat-free tastes, although the leaden execution faltered. Ale-steamed mussels are one of the few instances where beer is called upon as an ingredient, but the results were rubbery and oddly flavorless. And with so many of his competitors turning out such spectacular fried chicken, Guzman is putting himself at a disadvantage by bowing to timing pressures and serving his version cold. The menu sells it as “picnic-style.” Nice try. But the potato salad? Fabulous.
Meanwhile, upstairs …
Further cementing his stature among the top tier of Twin Cities chefs, Guzman is using the innovative Brewer’s Table to prove that beer-and-food pairings can be just as revelatory as their wine-and-food counterparts.
It helps that he and chef de cuisine Dustin Thompson have the full breadth of Surly’s output at their disposal, and the inspiration feels nearly limitless. I mean, the brewery’s Cynic, a Belgian-style saison, is no less stimulating than Monet’s garden at Giverny. Even better, Haug, Surly’s brewmaster, has plenty more where that came from.
Instead of cooking with beer, the focus is on finding ingredients that come to life against the qualities of specific Surly brews. There’s a five-course option with beer pairings ($75), but the service staff is more than able to offer pairing wisdom throughout the menu’s two dozen or so dishes. These are organized into five categories: snacks, small plates and three (vegetarian, fish and meat) larger plates, with at least four choices in each group.
The flavors tend to traffic along the lines of bold and brawny. Beef short ribs, cured in caraway molasses and served with several takes on fennel (puréed, charred), come alive when paired with Devil’s Work, a porter brewed with blackstrap molasses. The beer’s Sterling hops are winningly incorporated into the meat’s finishing glaze.
Fiery Hell — a lager infused with intense puya chiles — proved a spot-on complement to the whispers of heat that sneak up on a multifaceted spin on cauliflower. Nothing could have cut through the zaftig fatness of lardo — and the tang of cured sardines — with more grace than Bender, the brewery’s crisp oatmeal brown ale.
Some dishes were so impressive that their brew companions faded into the background. One standout was the slow-cooked, fork-tender lamb, ringed in fat and brightened with peaches and mint, an appealing understatement on a menu that’s chock full of showy peacocks. Another was crispy-skinned trout, the flaky meat fashioned into a roulade, jazzed with mustard and finished with parsnips, the root’s sweet characteristics rising and falling via technique: roasting, fermentation, frying and puréeing.
Some of the more out-there offerings (lamb sweetbreads come to mind) have disappeared since the restaurant’s debut in May, and the menu would improve if a few others (grimly fibrous hamachi, a trying-too-hard beet/foie gras salad) followed suit. Still, this is one playful kitchen, and the spirited cooking is a joy to behold.
Case in point: beef heart, its muscularity softened through a pastrami-like treatment, then sliced thin, topped with a punchy caraway sauerkraut and piled into bite-size buns blackened with charcoal powder.
It’s a fantastic must-have nibble, one of five similarly witty appetite teasers best enjoyed, tapas-style, on the shareable snacks board. With beer pairings, it’s $36, and so worth it.
The building’s audacious design — by Steven Dwyer of HGA Architects and Engineers of Minneapolis — is another off-the-charts asset. Its titanic scale certainly trumpets the message, “This is what $30 million looks like.”
The exterior astutely mirrors the neighborhood’s industrial setting. Inside, it’s dinner theater meets factory floor, with diners treated to museum-quality views of gleaming, semi-sculptural brewing apparatus that’s set, Oz-like, behind towering glass walls.
The boisterous first-floor beer hall has the scale of Munich’s most memorable beer-focused gathering spaces (it can be just as loud, too). But rather than speaking in some kind of kitschy Bavarian pig Latin, Dwyer’s work is fluent in the sleek, rational vocabulary of modernism.
A long bar and what feels like an acre of picnic table-style seating encourage mingling among standoffish Minnesotans, and what could be a better conversation starter than beer?
Directly overhead lies the Brewer’s Table, occupying a much more compressed and subdued space. Take a seat at the kitchen counter, or on the sheltered terrace, which overlooks the well-tended lawn of the massive beer garden, the view artfully bookended by an abandoned grain silo.
When sunset rolls around, the silo’s rippling concrete walls are bathed in Surly-appropriate red light, a visual shoutout to the brewery’s amusing predilection for christening its beers (Hell, Darkness) with underworld overtones.
Talk about a light-bulb moment: What feels like an out-of-the-way address — in the shadow of Prospect Park’s 109-year-old water tower, with its witch’s hat roof — suddenly makes all kinds of poetic sense.
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