The Happy Gnome
498 Selby Ave., St. Paul
At first glance, it seems that sidekicks are among us to help out. Robin fetches Batman his bat-lattes; Jimmy Olsen uses his special wristwatch to signal Superman; Donald Rumsfeld carries special smoke-screen W-bombs in his utility belt; and so on. However, if you examine the tradition of the sidekick more closely, you soon realize that assisting is merely the smallest part of the sidekick's job. Really they're there to take the blame. Whenever Batman gets captured, you can bet it's Robin's fault. If Superman finds himself wearing a kryptonite necktie, it ain't his own super-doing that done it. As to W, need we even beat that horse? Just as likable Scooby Doo is constantly led into peril by his risk-ignorant band of straight-men sidekicks, so it goes back east.
However, you don't have to be a superhero to have a sidekick. This occurred to me recently as I was sitting in a booth in Cathedral Hill's newest smart suds emporium, the Happy Gnome, home to some two dozen taps and 70-something bottled ales, porters, stouts, and so forth. Isn't beer, in fact, the perfect sidekick?
Think about it. Whenever you do something marvelous, beer chivalrously bows out of the tale, allowing you to take full credit. Think of how many weddings would rightly credit that party ball of Coors that actually brought Tina and Karl together, or how many Christmas letters fail to give a shout-out to that sixer of Summit that set new baby Lars's ship a-sail. Meanwhile, when you set fire to the couch or drive your car through the plate glass at the hair salon, in steps the trusty sidekick to take all the blame. Remember: They were never beer goggles through which you first beheld your true love.
These may be pseudo deep thoughts, but hey, what else is a neighborhood tavern for? And the new Happy Gnome is that rarest of birds: a neighborhood tavern worth moving to the neighborhood for.
The place was Chang O'Hara's until recently, when it was bought by Mark van Wie and Paul Schatz, who own the nearby Muddy Pig, another bar with a big (but not as big) beer selection. To differentiate their new place from the old, they installed both a chef with a fine-dining background and two dozen beer-tap lines, most dedicated to the products of the new breed of small American brewers. That chef is Matt Hinman, who cooked formerly at W. A. Frost and the Craftsman, and here cooks foods that go well with beer. Like crisp, cornmeal-crusted calamari ($9), charmingly crunchy curls of cunning critter created cleverly for crafty cramming into cheery kissers. Ahem. Seriously though, the golden rings of squid, with their pert wasabi dipping sauce, go well with most of the ruddy ales, such as the Rush River Unforgiven Amber ($5 a pint), which has the sweetness to emphasize the sweetness of the squid, but also a malty richness to enhance the silk and heat of the accompanying wasabi mayo.
A salad such as the arugula and watercress one with mint and cherry tomatoes ($8) offers enough pepper and spice to go with a crisp, hoppy beer such as Bell's Two Hearted Ale ($5). Chef Hinman plans to debut a whole new menu this summer, and says he'll be focusing more on American classics with a hit of spice, such as his bison burger ($10), which is easily one of the best I've ever had. He counteracts the inherent dryness of bison with a hit of bacon fat, and plays up the rich gamy flavors with a hint of fresh horseradish blended into the meat. Burgers and such come with good fries—the big, hand-hewn-looking sort. Fries that are perfect for pairing with nothing so much as beer!
Really, the fun at the Happy Gnome is to be had in sampling the almost 100 beers on hand. Yes, I said almost a hundred, including that two dozen on tap, from places as distant as Belgium, Scotland, and Germany; and as near as Duluth, Brooklyn Center, and St. Paul. As someone who believes in the importance of celebrating and living deeply in our local world, I particularly like that the Happy Gnome is happy with so many local offerings, including those from Lake Superior Brewing Company, and the new Surly Brewing Company, in Brooklyn Center, which makes a slightly sweet, robust but clean and very drinkable reddish ale, Surly Furious ($5).
The Happy Gnome also gives local favorite Summit a chance to showcase some of its more esoteric accomplishments. I tried the very-limited-run Scandia Ale ($5), a wheat beer made with cardamom, coriander, and orange peel, and it was absolutely fascinating, like a morning with fresh baked scones, rendered as the thirst-quenching afternoon. (Speaking of thirst-quenching afternoons, please know that the Happy Gnome is rebuilding its large, tree-shaded back patio as I type; soon the 25 or so tables should be assembled into one of the nicer beer gardens in town.)
All of this beer bounty is thanks to two forces: One is the owners, including Mark van Wie, who, as one of the early forces responsible for downtown St. Paul's brewpub Great Waters Brewing Company, has serious beer credentials. "It's really great to be able to make great beer," van Wie told me when I spoke to him on the phone for this story, "but don't underestimate the fun in buying beer. I'm like a kid in a candy store here, and I get to buy just literally hundreds of the best beers in the world. The only problem is that I want them all, and I don't have anywhere to put them all."
Of course, the obvious solution to the problem of having too much stuff is ordinarily remedied by investing in something with a 12-car unfinished garage in Big Lake, and then getting a Sam's Club membership to fill it with bargains, and then getting a second house once the spouse and you come to irreconcilable differences over your impending bankruptcy/phenomenal weight gain/working of three jobs/strangely baseless unhappiness. However, if the Happy Gnome folks followed that common path, they'd lose the second force that's responsible for their lovely beer selection: their customers.
"Between the Muddy Pig and now the Happy Gnome, we have the best beer customers in the Twin Cities," says van Wie. "I tell my distributors that I can sell anything—our customers don't know the meaning of the word fear. Seriously though, I think it's a chicken and egg thing: a Bud and Miller bar attracts Bud and Miller drinkers, and then there's us."
Well, on second thought, make that almost all good customers—and one villainous one. "Some of our regulars [from the Muddy Pig] gave us little garden gnomes for our opening, and we had one cute one hidden in the bushes outside, but somebody boosted it," van Wie confided to me, with exasperation. "I'm like, 'Come on, bring him back! What are you going to do with it?'"
And thus our story ends, with this trusty, trusting sidekick of the Happy Gnome captured! Kidnapped! Imperiled by heavens knows what dastardly plan, hatched by heaven knows which evildoer. What will happen? Stay tuned, beer lovers, same gnome time, same gnome channel.
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