It’s easy to bite off more than you can chew at Surly Beer Hall and Brewer’s Table

Pork jowl and a taco at Surly's Brewer's Table.

Pork jowl and a taco at Surly's Brewer's Table.

Surly. People love this beer. If you're not a beer drinker or you're not sure what to buy, grab a four-pack each of Furious and Bender and watch your company's eyes light up like a kid being offered a triple-scoop.

The brewery itself is nothing short of a temple, situated on two acres of land in an industrial yard in Prospect Park. There Surly looms large, with enormous sculptures and firepits seemingly designed for goliaths or barbarians or modern-day royalty. If you've got a tall, frosty silo of Surly in your hand, you're at least halfway to king for a day.

Fans come in droves — enough to justify valet parking, a swag boutique, bouncers, and most recently, a fine-dining restaurant putting out the sort of progressive, tweezered food that's usually pictured in $12 magazines with hefty paper stock. Right out of the gate, they were serving about 1,300 people daily, more than the average restaurant serves in about a week. Impatient queues form before the doors even open on weekends, and waits can easily stretch to over an hour at peak times. No one cares — more time to soak up suds. But push that beer away, and how does the food stand on its own?

I've said many times that 40-item menus are difficult to get right, which is why, often, the finest restaurant menus read like pamphlets rather than tomes. The fewer the choices, the more perfect the product has an opportunity to be. At Surly's Beer Hall there are 37 menu items, not counting the menu at Brewer's Table, the separate fine-dining restaurant. If they had to swap out the name of Surly, "Ambitious" might be a contender.

The scope of the beer hall menu is massive, from the ubiquitous burger to BBQ to things like enchiladas and the Indian street food chaat, as well as a few more extravagant cheffed-up options like ricotta gnocchi and bone marrow. The end result of all this meandering is that the menu tastes of everything and nothing, of "good enough, now get me another Cynic." Dishes fly out of the kitchen in mere minutes (because how else can you turn tables over hundreds at a time without precooking most of the food?), so the smash-style burgers have good flavor but are overdone, the brisket is dry, and the chaat is an uninspiring pile of marinated chickpeas served with tortilla chips. The beet and watermelon salad is pre-portioned and wan with soggy bread crumbs. The fries are strangely seasoned frozen affairs — kettle chips would hold more appeal.

A wedge salad with bleu cheese and pickled tomatoes was fresh and bright. The highlight was the enchiladas in a lick-the-plate, otherworldly orange Puya pepper sauce. We wish there were more Mexican food all over this menu; chef Jorge Guzman has a deep affinity for it thanks to his Yucatecan blood.


But the mediocrity of the rest of it? Nobody seemed to notice. Everyone was happily, blithely eating and drinking. Very, very happily, because everyone got just the dish they wanted, whether it was charcuterie, BBQ, catfish, potato confit, farro salad, pea toast, fried chicken, or a burger. And there was beer. Lots and lots of beer.

I asked Guzman if he planned to trim the menu at all and he said, no. "It's a good size." And, who can argue with success? They're coming in droves and waiting for hours for a table. This place makes people happy.

Chef Guzman of course has a background in fine dining, most notably locally at now-defunct Solera and also Corner Table. He tells me he's worked all over the country from Colorado to Charleston to New York, and his cooking perspective is an ever-evolving one; he's always trying to push further, to achieve higher heights. Ambitious.

For a greater sense of this ambition, head upstairs to Brewer's Table, the brewery's finer-dining concept. Many nights, there's no wait at all to dine there, where a five-course tasting menu with beer pairing is $75, or you're encouraged to mix and match the "modern American menu" composed of small plates, smaller plates, medium sized plates, and a few standard sized entrees. According to Guzman, all of the food at Surly has been designed with beer in mind, or "pint to plate and plate to pint," as he puts it. But start to dine at Brewer's Table, and it can be difficult to see how that's possible.

The food is the star of this show. At its best, it turns dishes you thought you knew into dazzling new puzzles that can have you mulling for days. At worst, it will leave you scratching your head and wondering, mid-bite, what is it you're eating again? We quite seriously suggested the plates come with diagrams.

At their best, Guzman and crew delivered a Jackson Pollock canvas of a beet salad with a base of vadouvan (an Indian curry spice blend) granola that makes soil for a garden of whole baby beets, yellow beets cut into paper-thin blotters, nasturtium leaves, buttermilk snow, and cold shavings of foie gras terrine. And while at first glance the "panzanella" was irksome and incomplete without its traditional hunks of crusty bread, the whole thing — boquerones curled into tight balls, a plush, pink blossom of lardo, olive puree two ways, pickled tomato, light dusting of bread crumbs — came together like slang making its way into Webster's: newly defined.

But more often than not, the cooking gets muddled in pursuit of this ambition.

An octopus plated like a miniature Stonehenge with pickled pepper, romesco, and chorizo in a lake of chile-olive tapenade that sat in another lake of white bean puree registered as little more than one-note salt. A "tea egg" with black garlic, spring onions, asparagus, and puffed quinoa was a beautifully soft-cooked egg cluttered with an amalgam of other stuff on the plate, not limited to the above, but also enoki mushrooms, sea beans, hazelnuts, and more dollops and swipes. It was like trying to put together a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle inside of your mouth. Lakes of puree appeared on no fewer than five of the plates we sampled, offering little by way of flavor cohesion. I can't be sure how many times this phrase was uttered from our table: "What's this now?" with a sauce or a puree on a fingertip for a second or third inspection. Add the many beer selections and pairings and you've got a sure recipe for palate exhaustion. That said, Brewer's Table offers some stunning beers not available downstairs, including Misanthrope and Pentagram, two wild-yeast, barrel-aged eye-openers that drink like fine wine.

The dull, gray space is some middle ground between conference room and banquet space — I kept waiting for someone to roll out a powerpoint and a platter of muffins. No part of it indicates a stage for this kind of progressive cooking, and though the service is kind and accommodating, the flow is disjointed, with sometimes tumbleweed waits between courses, and other times head-spinning speed.

We overheard, more than once, from neighboring tables: "I just want a burger." While I don't have any stats on how many burgers or BBQ sandwiches Surly sells in relation to pea toast or tea eggs, I have to guess its a goodly amount. Thanks to roughly zillions of dollars rolling into Surly in the form of beer money, Guzman has an opportunity to do whatever he wants. If some of it sticks, then hooray! And if some of it doesn't, then oh, well. People are still going to come to Surly in droves thrusting fistfuls of cash.

"This place is a beast, and nobody is getting bored here," Guzman told me. Exhausted palate, maybe, but boredom no. Still, I can't help but think back to when they flung open the doors to Surly, before Brewer's Table had even opened. This is what Guzman said:

"If it was me, I'd come and smash some BBQ and a couple of beers, and be done with it."

If it was me, too.