Add the debut of the Village Brewery, with its five house-made beers on tap, to your list of summer's urban events: all month long, Houston's pent-up brewpub thirst has kept this cavernous old postal garage packed, even on weeknights. In animated attendance are jocks and computerheads and fledgling middle managers; female lawyers and West U matronettes and suntanned babes in their best linen shorts and tank tops. By 9 p.m. they're hoisting milkshake-size tumblers of conspicuously unfizzy brown ale, crowding the raised bar until tables open up, shooting pool in the spacious back room, producing a powerful racket.
They are eating, too. I only wish they were eating better. The very essence of brewpub-ness hinges on serving food in conjunction with homebrew; now that the Texas Legislature has finally wriggled out from under the thumb of the wholesale beer lobby and let Texans in on the well-established national brewpub trend, it's a pity that most of the grub at Houston's first brewery doesn't match the interest level of its best beers. The unctuous, darkly bitter stout, the smooth and malty Hampton brown ale and the brisk, hoppy Amber Owl all deserve more than a humdrum Bennigan's-style menu in which literally half the offerings come with cheese (usually melted) on top.
Still, these beers demand to be tasted (the jaundiced critiques of local brewsnobs notwithstanding). Likewise the chance to see this clever structural recycling job, with crown molding made out of beer bottles, and brooding ranks of brewing equipment -- some coppery, some silvery -- that look like fittings from a high-tech alchemist's chamber. And by tap-dancing around the menu, you can do well enough here.
The house burger is terrific (which, given the hamburger's strong connection with beer in the Texas psyche, is as it should be) -- good meat, cooked precisely medium rare on a recent night, its surprisingly graceful cap of cheddar, bacon and sauteed mushrooms hiding under an eccentrically sweet bun. But why undermine it with such listless French fries, the tasteless and all-but-textureless kind that are dead ringers for frozen?
And why, to ask a more fundamental question, isn't the noble art of frying taken more seriously here? If the challenge of a brewpub menu is to create items that either suit beer or use it ingeniously, then frying seems like a natural place to start. Beer stands up well to the crisp, salty surfaces and rich flavors that a good frying job produces; and beer is a well-known secret weapon when it comes to batter-frying. Yet the beer-battered mushrooms and zucchini originally planned for the menu have failed to materialize, and the promised "hand-breaded" onion rings are, according to a waiter, made by hands in a factory. On a menu that seems to cry out for beer-battered shrimp and oysters of the sort that the late great Zorba's used to do, this cavalier approach to frying is just one of many missed opportunities.
The Brewery's chili, however, doesn't miss a trick. It's feisty stuff with the vivid complexity that comes from serious red-chile powder, plus a leavening of scallions, diced tomato and cheddar to cut the heat. Perfect with beer: indeed, one hopes they're using the house brews to enrich the chili's cooking liquid. Beer does come into play in the French onion gratinee -- misleadingly labeled as a soup by the menu -- which involves beer-poached Texas 1015 onions, a little sturdy veal stock, plus a great deal of bread and gooey mozzarella cheese. The effect is strange but not unpleasant, rather like a richly flavored bread-and-cheese casserole.
Aside from burgers and chili, the menu's other genuine attractions include a nice house salad that mixes spinach and romaine to good effect; its house cognac dressing resembles a mellowed-out Thousand Island with agreeably uptown airs. An appetizer of sliced yellow tomatoes and melted mozzarella on a soft, garlicky French loaf makes for an innocently appealing bit of modern Americana. And the baby back ribs (here dubbed "Baby Come Back Ribs," I grieve to report) are very decent ones, first steamed in house ale before broiling, which gives them an admirable tenderness. Of the chef's advertised "fine herbs, garlic and serrano pepper," I could discern little; but of the sweetly pedestrian daubed-on barbecue sauce, there was all too much.
The rest of the menu inspires ambivalence at best. Cold beer-boiled shrimp in their shells sound more exciting than they prove to be -- any beer flavor, let alone the chef's "blend of secret spices," is so subtle as to constitute another missed opportunity. The chicken fajita quesadilla is perfectly okay, but no better or worse than a jillion other versions now glutting the local market. The Dunstan Dip (named for the Village backstreet on which the Brewery makes its home) is archetypal seven-layer Texas goo, a primitively gratifying moosh of refried beans and assorted Tex-Mex mix-ins, to be scooped up with thin tortilla chips. While none of these items thrill, they make adequate snacks in a place more conducive to grazing than to full-scale dining.
Not so the mysteriously labeled "Village App's," a crumble of tomatoey Italian sausage swaddled in lumpen, greasy puff pastry. "Looks like Swanson's," groused the Czech Cynic when he got a load of it; kinda tasted like Swanson's, too. Just as dreary were an entree of overcooked angel hair pasta smothered in way too much overbearing marinara sauce, and an aggressively bland grilled-chicken variant on the patty-melt theme. The most expensive thing on the menu is a big slab of porterhouse steak for 18 bucks; it will probably make your basic guy-guy happy, although the one at my table was startled to find it radically rare instead of medium, the way he'd ordered it. Its nigh-unto-raw condition suited me fine, although the chef's "special blend of spices" was -- as usual -- lost on me.
And I couldn't help but think how much more user-friendly a really great steak sandwich, with decent fries, would make the Brewery's menu, on which the sandwiches tend to be cheese-infested bores. Of course that way lies madness. Ours not to reason why the Brewery omits any truly interesting pizzas from its repertoire, or why it doesn't use all that cheese and beer on hand to produce a swell Welsh rarebit. This menu doesn't have to go fancypants; it just needs to be a little smarter, a little less hackneyed.
By the time we got to dessert, I had grown wary. Beer-bread pudding sounded promising, but its interesting sour tinge was offset by a too too solid consistency. It left me with a sense of almost-but-not-quiteness that seems to sum up this kitchen -- and this menu -- as well as anything.
A place this new still has time to get it right. Maybe in time the music system will cease to boom with undifferentiated, bass-laden noise. Maybe time will temper the intrusively eager-beaver service dispensed by perky young persons costumed, like some Colorado Youth Corps, in khaki shorts and hiking shoes. These kids are painfully nice, but things do get forgotten, and there are only so many times you can face the question, "How's your [name of food item goes here]?"
Time may work the kinks out of the brewing process, too. Twice running, the Brewery has been out of one of its five beers: once the mild Village Pale Ale (no great loss); and another night the darker, sturdier Amber Owl, which was reported to have gone sour (a definite loss). The darker beers are more successful here; you can find your favorite by ordering a sampler of all five kinds in scaled-down four-ounce glasses. The Houston Wheat beer with its accompanying lemon slice is inarguably wimpy, but the merits of the rest can -- and will -- be argued.
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One of my brewsnobbish colleagues voiced initial scorn for the Brewery's Armadillo Stout -- the beer world's voluptuous equivalent of dark-roasted coffees -- but wound up conceding it "wasn't bad" even if it isn't as big and, well, stout as some. "Real beer drinkers will still go to the Gingerman," he sniffed, citing the nearby Village hangout's lower prices for bottled microbrewery beers. He then proceeded to enjoy a great quantity of Hampton Brown Ale over several games of pool.
Dispensed from the tap barely cool, tranquilly still, with only the barest traces of foam, the Brewery's darker beers are far more interesting and exotic than anything sold in a grocery store. For anyone who hasn't spent time in the Pacific Northwest or Great Britain, they are likely to come as a revelation. And that -- regardless of whether the food improves -- is reason enough to go.
The Village Brewery, 2415 Dunstan, 524-HOPS.
Brewery Burger, $5.75;
Texas chili, $5.75;
baby back ribs, $12.75;
beer, $3.75 a pint, $1 for 4 oz.