Pub and Grub
Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery
1430 Washington Ave. S., Mpls., (612) 339-8696
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m.; Sunday 4:00 p.m.-midnight; happy hour Monday-Friday 3:00 p.m.-6:30 p.m. ($2.25 pints, $8 pitchers); $2 pitchers Monday-Friday after 10:00 p.m.
You've got to figure that every culinary invention is the result of tinkering--games of What If with inexpensive ingredients in quiet kitchens. You've got to figure that the first chocolate mousse was preceded by a bunch of chocolate flats, the first sparkling apple ciders came after a string of apple rottens, the first chili dog followed a series of discarded beef-bourguignonne dogs and clam-chowder dogs.
Well, maybe not that last one. But you've got to give the tinkerers credit. And I'm ready to crown Mark Meyer, the chef at Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery, Tinkerer King of the Twin Cities. Meyer has authored a menu that's nearly Dr. Seussian in its madness: Pasta in a cream and buffalo-wing sauce. Cajun chicken cordon bleu. Greek salad with a jerk-chicken option. Linguini with bratwurst. Pecan-bourbon barbecued beef tenderloin. Teriyaki chicken with mayonnaise, grilled pineapple, Provolone cheese, and sprouts.
Are these things any good? Nah. The buffalo chicken penne ($9.95 at lunch, $10.95 at dinner) is weird, sweet, cloying, and thoroughly unpleasant. The Town Hall Nachos ($7.95), made with fried won ton skins instead of corn chips, are soggy and oily, and they aren't helped by an inoffensive "goat cheese cream" and a strange, stewed tomato salsa. The teriyaki chicken sandwich ($7.95) just tastes intense--it reminded me of tasting sauce out of a jar.
The menu features another 60 items, and after going for the creative dishes, I turned my attention to the tamer ones, but I didn't have any success there, either. A meatloaf ($9.95 lunch/$10.95 dinner) wasn't bad, but the accompanying mashed potatoes were greasy and the gravy tasted like a doctored mix. A Greek salad ($7.95 lunch, $8.95 dinner) was dressed with sugar-bowl-sweet dressing and had doughy tomatoes in it. Even the hickory-smoked pork chops ($15.95)--which Pete Rifakes, owner of this Seven Corners brew pub, assured me were the best item on the menu and irresistible--were terribly dry, tasted suspiciously like liquid smoke, and provided nowhere near the experience they should for the cost.
Maybe I'll eat my words one day and Rifakes and Meyer will usher some phenomenal dish into the world, but for the time being, this place is the spiritual home of the clam-chowder hot dog. I mean, even the burgers were disasters--and that's the last thing a brew pub can afford to fall down on. The menu boldly asserts that Town Hall "makes the best burgers in Minneapolis." Perhaps that's why I was so supremely disappointed in these patties, which are terribly overpacked, sand-dense, tough, grainy, and sit on cottony buns. I can think of a dozen places with vastly better burgers in Minneapolis alone--Morton's, the Convention Grill, the 5-8 Club, the Gay 90's, and Bar Abilene, to name just a few. In a phone interview after my visits, I asked Rifakes whether he'd ever had the burgers at the St. Paul Grill--luscious, plump, delectable things that are to Town Hall Brewery's as omelets are to crackers. Not for "a really long time," he said. I asked whether he thought Town Hall's burgers were comparable to the St. Paul Grill's. "Absolutely," he insisted. Eventually he acknowledged that he doesn't even eat his restaurant's burgers--he simply makes his own at the restaurant when the mood hits him.
A few weeks ago in this space, I pointed out that running a restaurant isn't rocket science--and Rifakes's remark perfectly illustrates how restaurateurs behave in ways that would seem to violate the most basic common sense. Imagine a filmmaker saying, "I don't watch other people's movies," or a florist saying, "I won't look at other people's designs." Apparently it's as nothing for a restaurant owner to decide not to leave his four walls and call them paradise--or, for that matter, not to even sample what's cooked within said four walls.
Well, whatever. I'm still inclined to cut Town Hall a little slack because brewmaster John Haggerty, who got his start at Seattle's Big Time Brewery and Alehouse, brews some awfully good beer. The India Pale Ale is as crisp as a glass bedsheet, with fierce hops and a nice overall balance. The Scotch Ale is warm and toasty and has a big, round body. I was particularly impressed with a seasonal brew offered on my visits, an Australian Sparkling Ale with a close resemblance to those Belgian beers that get their characteristically fine bubbles and fizzy texture from a secondary fermentation. This delicious summer brew is lively and astringent, with an almost citrusy zing to it.
So what's with the vast disparity between pub and grub? I'd distill it thus: When it comes to beer, Town Hall has its eyes on national benchmarks. When it comes to food, they're myopically focused right down the street. Quoth Rifakes: "We're on our fourth chef right now. We started with a white-tablecloth guy, but on the West Bank it was difficult to be successful with that menu. When Mark started about eight months ago, he and I went to revamp the entire menu. You've got to understand [that] while I wouldn't say we compete directly with anyone, Grandma's is packed every day, and we needed to compete at least on a lunch level with Grandma's."
I don't know where to even begin explaining the problem there. If I decided to open a neighborhood restaurant and compete with McDonald's on McDonald's terms--matching those prices with that speed of service and those hours--I would fail. They work on vast economies of scale, they operate with a set of costs different from small businesses. But why on earth would I want to do that anyway? Let McDonald's be McDonald's. And let Grandma's Saloon & Deli be Grandma's Saloon & Deli. Because Gram's got the panoply of sweet, salty, creamy and/or cheesy bar food sewn up tight. Good for them! By the way, who here thinks that Grandma's clientele is suddenly going to rise up and ask where they can eat a meal that is a lot like what they're already having, but down the street?
Anyhoo, with any luck Town Hall will figure out how to make a dozen homey items like burgers and sandwiches as well as anyone else in town, and then they'll rule the world. I'll probably go back there this summer, at the very least to sample Haggerty's upcoming cream ale--I've never had a craft-brewed cream ale. I'm also hoping for a reprise of a charming evening last summer, when fat raindrops began to fall on Town Hall's patio. A dozen parties scooted their chairs forward under the umbrellas and enjoyed their beers beneath the quiet rain. It was a pretty night, and the mist made the neon of nearby Grandma's look like nothing but fuzz.
PRAIRIEFARE.COM: Organic baby arugula streaming through your modem. Pasture-raised, bluestem-grass-fed beef on your monitor. The Internet has digitized the fields, and it's good news for your dinner table. You'll see it all at www.prairiefare.com, a brilliant concept developed by the Land Stewardship Project and the Western Minnesota Sustainable Farming Association. The site contains links to six farms in the Montevideo area, from which Twin Citizens can order sides of beef or flocks of chickens, sign up to participate in a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, check out the apple harvest, and generally learn what western Minnesota farmers are up to.
Jeremy Murdock, a young farmer and recent Macalester College grad, is one of the three owners of the Easy Bean farm in Milan (pronounced like "my land"). Murdock says the idea is to try to link people in the Cities (and our wallets) with like-minded farmers and their carefully raised products--while at the same time taking an end run around all the strange vagaries of the ag business. For example, did you know it's nearly impossible for new farmers to get into the big Minneapolis and St. Paul farmers' markets because they're all filled up? Did you know that a farmer might drive all the way into town and find that all the co-op shelves are full up of beets, or broccoli, or whatever it is the farmer has in the back of her truck? Do you know that most of the money you're paying for meat in the grocery store is going to a series of middlemen?
Cut out all those middlemen and the marriage of city eater and country grower looks to be a win-win situation: The cheapest way for city dwellers to get the freshest meats and vegetables is to buy directly from the farmer. Simultaneously, the most efficient way for your city dollars to support rural communities and help limit air and water pollution is to buy directly from the farmer.
Audrey Arner, one of the owners of prairiefare.com member Moonstone Farm, says the Web site "is part of a movement in various parts of Minnesota, a widespread phenomenon in which farmers are having to get more innovative about how we do our marketing, because traditional crops and traditional marketing have proved not to be playing out very well. But it's also part of a wave of consumer enthusiasm about knowing where your food comes from, knowing who your food comes from, and paying for quality, better flavor, and the peace of mind about the ecological impact of your food on the environment."
That last part of Arner's comment refers to the way her cows are grazed: They move from pasture to pasture with the help of portable fences, replicating natural herd patterns and fertilizing and reseeding the fields. As for price, while you do have to buy Moonstone beef in bulk--the smallest order is a quarter of a cow, or around 150 pounds--$2 a pound for hormone-free, naturally raised beef (remember, we cannot call beef organic until after federal standards are finalized) qualifies as a blue-light special.
And speaking of being cheap, I've always shied away from the large up-front cash commitment required for CSA's, in which consumers buy a share of a farm and get a portion of all its products. For example, a full share in Easy Bean, with delivery to the Twin Cities, costs $440, while half a share costs $295. Then again, this buys you between 7 and 12 pounds of produce a week in the spring and more than 20 pounds a week in the summer and fall; Murdock says a good number of his urban customers split shares three or four ways, so round up your officemates, your church fellows, and your neighbors. Customers who register with the CSA will start getting grub the first week in June--Murdock says the earliest arrivals will be salad greens, cooking greens, bok choy, arugula, scallions, beets, and kohlrabi. Once the Web has brought you all that local bounty, you can start looking globally for recipes--I found one for a soup reportedly made for Eleanor Roosevelt's daughter (www.eee.org/comm/ sbcmuseum/cookbook/1900/recipes/125.htm), but that's another story entirely.
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