BOP Till You Drop

My experience at Vine Park was that much of the extensive menu of nearly three-dozen options seems weird, and anything that at first glance seemed weird, at first bite seemed very bad indeed. A mahi-mahi poor boy ($12) never became larger than the sum of its parts: The tender fish was drenched with a sour, but not hot, jalapeño tartar sauce, and the whole thing fell apart in the hands. Butternut-gouda pizza ($9) is basically a bland purée of squash spread on a rosemary-flavored disk and topped with islands of nutty cheese and walnuts. It looks like nothing so much as a baby-food pizza, and offered no distinct flavor to even object to--one of the blandest things I've ever eaten. Portobello-pear crostini ($7) were really peculiar, vast planks of bread arranged around a wide bowl of pear-onion broth, with a mound of incredibly bland smoked sliced pears and soft onions. A pair of pan-seared ahi tuna fillets ($19) with julienne vegetables and soba noodles was pleasantly dressed with soy and ginger, but it wasn't really good; it was merely not bad.

I could continue to eviscerate this bland, strange, and poorly executed menu, but I'd rather not. Instead I'll wrap up with a few cruel remarks on the cider-cured pork chop ($16.50); it was deadly dry, and offered none of the sweet nutty taste that one turns to pork chops for. Still, the accompaniments beside the chop were good; parsnip mashed potatoes were fluffy and buttery; butternut squash purée was silky. Put that grilled ham and cheese where that pork chop was, and now you're talking. Service was sort of gee-whiz and easily confused: One time a server helpfully offered which of the beers he found "offensive"; another time my table didn't receive our dinner entrées because of a server error. (To their credit, the management did what they could to make reparations, and we were flooded with free appetizers from the late-night menu--so flooded, in fact, that we walked away feeling guilty, instead of wronged.)

Still, it's my opinion that all you really need at a brewpub--after the beer--is a good burger and fries, and everything after that is icing on the cake. Vine Park has the good burger, beat that with a good grilled portobello mushroom--and then they even have the cake. Namely, a signature chocolate cake shaped like a bottle cap ($6), which is everything you want in a cake shaped like a bottle cap: It's warm, it's fudgy, it's chocolatey. Cream-soda-poached pears ($5) were also very good. The dense, beautiful pears were served on a bed of crème fraîche. It was like the best part of a fresh-fruit tart, even though I didn't know what to do with the bowl of poaching liquid and plumped dried cherries that surrounded it.

Co-owner Williams admits that the place is still finding its way. She and her husband never got into BOP-ing to create the best pork chop in the universe (in fact, both she and her husband are vegetarians). They got into it for the beer, and for all the many brewers, who, Williams says, have become like family. "We have wonderful people who come to brew with us, and we wanted to spend more time with them; and to create a place where our brewers could spend more time with each other. We talk about beer, we brew beer, we drink beer. It's a cozy little family, and we brew, and we take brew breaks."

TABLEHOPPING:

93 CENTS MAKES YOU CUTE:You think you're so smart, downloading your little girl's Christmas list off her Palm Pilot while the two of you snowboard through Gstaad. Well, guess again: Where were you when the Nutcracker Suite Teatime was selling out at the Buckingham Bee in White Bear Lake? Good God, woman, in the name of all that's sweet and sticky--you also missed out on the Holiday Tea in Ireland! If you don't get on the phone now--and I mean now--you're going to miss the chance to book "Christmas Tea in Imperial Russia" at the tearoom on December 17, an $18.95 exploration of porcelain, pastry, and sugar tongs, with seatings at both 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. Owner Kathleen Boehm says she's even going to break out an authentic samovar for the event. And there are still seats available for the December 29 and 30 Duchess of Bedford Century Teas: six-course--yes, six--extravaganzas with a strolling duo of singing Victorian musicians; three savory courses, including cucumber sandwiches; scones; two sweet courses; and perhaps even nonalcoholic elderberry cordial, just like they drank in Anne of Green Gables. The Century teas cost $26.95, and the fare far outstrips that of conventional teas. Owner Boehm won't disclose what she'll be serving, but last year there were "floating Pavlovas" and vol-au-vents. This year patrons can rent fancy vintage hats (93 cents, or $1 with tax) to wear for the event. Looking cute and dainty is available at no extra charge. The Buckingham Bee: 2179 Fourth St., White Bear Lake; (651) 653-2052.

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