The British Can Be Bubbly
11000 Red Circle Dr. (intersection of Crosstown 62 and Shady Oak Road), Minnetonka; 931-0203
What did Holden Caulfield eat for lunch? What were the coasters under Mike Hammer's drinks like? What pattern was Hester Prynne's silverware? These questions may go forever unanswered, but if you want to know what Sherlock
Holmes ate, drank, sat upon, walked over, lifted food to his mouth with, ate from, was illuminated by, and generally gazed upon, look no further than Sherlock's Home, the Minnetonka restaurant and brew pub.
Ordinarily I hate things based on such cute concepts, but Bill and Carol Burdick carry out the premise with such good faith and pay such meticulous attention to every detail that it actually ends up seeming impressive and charming, especially once you've had a drink. Like one of the more than 90 imported single-malt Scotch whiskies or the magnificent cask-conditioned ales Bill produces.
If you see Bill at the bar--he's big and ruddy and silver-haired, and exactly what you might hope a British brewmaster would look like--by all means have that drink next to him, because I think he knows everything. Or everything interesting. Or at least enough to keep you enthralled for a few hours if you care about the material, social, and cultural history of brewing. (Don't believe me? Just head down there for one of the Saturday afternoon tours he offers of their brewery.)
He talks about the dawn of civilization, ancient Sumerians, medieval monks, how tax codes have influenced beer development, how Prohibition still haunts Minnesota (preventing brew pubs from selling their beer to distributors or other restaurants), the British brewing counterrevolution (which rescued traditional brewing practices from the way of Budweiser), and about a million other things, and says stuff like: "Anheuser-Busch and us reminds me of the difference between a bomber pilot and an infantryman. Budweiser just flies over, and at 50,000 feet drops the bomb; that's their marketing, their brewing, everything. But we are right in the trenches with our customers; when I'm brewing I literally think of people at the bar. I think Joe or Tom or Susie, they drink this beer, and once you start thinking of your customers as people instead of bomb craters, well, that changes everything, doesn't it?"
Indeed it does, and I'm glad of it--the beer Bill Burdick makes is astonishingly good stuff: complex, involved, delicious--and as unlike a Budweiser as Sherlock's pal Dr. Watson is unlike a can of Coke. All the malts, hops, and other dry ingredients are imported from Great Britain, all the recipes are unique, and all the brewing machinery, casks, and "engines" (the stuff that pulls the beer out of the casks) are imported too.
It's hard to pick a favorite beer at Sherlock's. My favorite might be the Bishop's Bitter, a highly hopped, complex, biting British-style ale that's "cask conditioned"--finished in wooden barrels. Allowing the beer to mature in wood--as malt whisky or brandy does--lets it develop a range of interesting taste, and, since the beer breathes in the wood, in some way it tastes more robust, and more alive.
Or maybe my favorite is the Piper's Pride, a Scottish-style ale that's sweeter and warm, and tastes almost like very fresh bread, for you can taste the malt and the grain in it. Michael Jackson, the Julia Child of beer, has called it the best Scottish-style ale in or out of Scotland.
Of course, Bill has amusing things to say about his Piper's Pride, explaining that "In Scotland the brewing tradition grew apart from the English tradition probably out of hatred as much as anything else--if you're Scottish and trying to attract Scots the last thing you're going to do is put a sign up saying, 'We brew English ale.'" Not wanting to use British hops, Scottish brewers experimented with a variety of unusual bittering agents, and Bill, relying on an 1843 recipe developed by the William Younger brewery in Edinburgh, uses the tropical tree bark quassia in Piper's Pride--and who knew quassia and Sherlock Holmes could come together to such effect in Minnetonka? It's astonishing.
"You have to buy into the totality of it," says Bill. "A bitter really tastes better when you drink it in a bar that serves proper English beer, but then if we got the beer right and the chairs wrong I feel we would have missed something." So he and Carol filled their entire restaurant with classic British pub chairs, pub mats, tables, glasses, carpets, lamps, dishes, tableware, and everything. The gorgeous carved bar is an exacting reproduction of one "built in 1894 in the East End of London. It was blown to bits by Hitler, but as luck would have it, it had been well photographed. We took the photography and had it blown up--it took the woodcarver six months of just carving it, the woodcarver could follow the photography exactly. We think we got it right to scale, an inch in any direction."
Why? For the same reason that Sherlock's has a large main foyer: because "Sherlock Holmes was a man of means, and he wouldn't have gone into a public bar, he would have gone into a hotel bar or a bar with a doorman in it, a Whitehall bar, in a very tall building, this is the sort of bar that Sherlock would have gone to." And how would Sherlock have sustained himself? He ought to have started with the fabulous marinated Scottish Salmon Glenmorangie ($9.50), translucent slices of the most exquisitely delicious fish. Or the Ploughman's Lunch ($8.95, but big enough to be a nonploughman's dinner)--it's three big wedges of cheese (Stilton, Cheshire, and Brie on my visit), served with a tangy chutney, pickled onions, and generous amounts of bread. If Sherlock was more in the mood for British comfort food he could have gone with the Welsh Rarebit ($7.45), for it's yummy, drippy, and made with a very good imported Gloucestershire; or Toad in the Hole ($7.25), an enormous, heavy, traditional pub dish that's like a sausage hidden in a fluffy soufflé. Keeping with tradition, Sherlock's offers Scotch Eggs ($4.25), but since I never like cold balls of sausage filled with a hard-boiled egg I didn't like these. Besides, what's Scotch Eggs without haggis to wash it down?
For an entrée, Sherlock ought to have the Fish & Chips ($11.95), which are very likely the best in town--a firm halibut fillet in a light, sweet batter, served with a generous pile of fries. The Royal Pheasant Pie ($12.95) is a delicious pot pie with a light pastry crust sheltering shreds of meat in a cream sauce. (There is also a light menu of salads, like the Romaine with Smoked Turkey ($9.75) that went untasted.)
Beef-wise their burger ($8.95) is well worth reckoning with, plump, tender, and topped with Cheshire cheese and bacon. I liked the Olde English Beefsteak ($14.50)--sirloin slices on toast points--far better than the Supreme Porterhouse ($24.95), a big steak the kitchen seems frightened of: The marinade was slight and the mushrooms served on top were practically raw. The desserts were also worth missing--I had the trifle on two separate occasions, and both times it tasted like it had been sitting in the cooler since some time during the Major era.
I wonder if anyone but me has ever had room for dessert. The temptation to fill up as you work your way through the beer menu is strong. In addition to the Bitter and the Piper's Pride there's the Gold Crown Lager, Stag's Head Stout, Palace Porter, an India Pale Ale, and their Queen Anne Light. That "Light" is another little brainy fillip of Bill's--turns out Queen Anne was pregnant 17 times, and by the end of it all she weighed about 275 pounds, and she wasn't tall. There's a woodcut portrait of her above the bar, which Bill will point out to you if you ask him. "That's my little idea of a joke," he says. "Sometimes you do all of these things and you wonder does anybody even give a damn?" Thankfully, this question doesn't deter him from making or enjoying his beer for very long. He lifts a glass in toast to good Queen Anne and answers himself: "Ah well, it's all good fun anyway isn't it. It's good fun."
DIP THIS: Was wandering around the Internet--not surfing, never surfing, I hate that damn word--when I blundered upon Snax.com, a site of dip and dip-like objects. I particularly like their no-nonsense chocolate enrobing recipe:
* 1 cup chocolate chips
* 1 tbsp. butter cut into chunks
* Potato chips and pretzels
Melt chocolate chips and butter slowly over low heat in a completely dry double boiler or heavy saucepan. Add more butter for a thinner sauce. Dip potato chips and pretzels in chocolate sauce, place on waxed paper, and refrigerate until the chocolate hardens.
But you don't have to stop with potato chips and pretzels--be creative. Banana chips, fresh berries, luncheon meats, insects, prophylactics--your only limitation is your imagination.
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