A better brew

I admit, I am a little early on this one. Routh Street Brewery has only been open one week. I just dropped in for a little preview dinner, I thought, planning to revisit later, according to accepted practice, so that the vast public response to my review wouldn't overwhelm the place before things were completely "pulled together" (even though I don't see myself why a restaurant would open before it had pulled itself together).

But, frankly, after just the first meal, it seemed to me they couldn't get much more pulled together, and I decided it was in everybody's best interest to go on and write about it.

My advice is: go to Routh Street Brewery now, quick, before they screw it up with fine-tuning or something.

Before you skip this, sighing, ohhh, another brewpub, do we really need this? let me point out that this pub is not from Colorado. Or Oklahoma. Nor is it part of a chain.

No, this brewpub is a little different right off the bat. And since we all know that atmosphere (ambiance, attitude) is 99 percent of a dining experience, you need to pay attention, because RSB's is the best among brewpubs so far.

It's a good-looking place, an amazing transformation of what was once a Mexican restaurant and more lately the last stand of Tom Agnew in Dallas. Other brewpubs in Dallas are vast, loud watering holes; like today's translation of TGI Friday's, they're places to drink and shout, and (maybe) meet someone. High decibels and brewpubs seem to go together.

Routh Street Brewery has that Hill Country look we've talked about, with a little Star Canyon-style West thrown in (antlers and Italian light fixtures). A sprawling limestone ranchhouse, angling around two patios, front and back, with lots of windows, it feels more like a country inn, a beer garden. All that's missing is the colored lights. There was even a strolling accordion player when we were there, instead of a "sound system."

The big brew tanks aren't as much in evidence as they are at Yegua Creek, for instance, where they're showcased almost like sculpture (David Smith gets curvy). So the scale doesn't have to match; RSB is more cozy than cavernous. It has a natural beer-drinking atmosphere--casual, not contrived, and the rambling layout means none of the rooms gets too noisy for conversation.

Like all the other pubs, RSB offers a beer sampler: two-ounce shots of their brews set down on a placemat over the printed name, so you feel a little like you're commencing a game of Parcheesi. On your mark, get set, drink. Winner is the one who can recognize the beers by taste alone.

Of course, there are no winners, because like most of the brew blends I've tried, RSB's are crowd-pleasers. They still have that American tendency to aim for the big fat middle of the road. RSB's Stout was tasty, but not quite tough enough; the RSB Brown Ale and the Session Mild were awfully similar, though very drinkable; the women at the table liked the floral, perfumey quality of the English Pale Ale, but the guys didn't.

Generally, I've decided that wheat beer is too grassy for me, but if you like it, RSB's recipe is a good one. It pleased me that the beers had simple, understandable names: RSB Big Black Stout. Period. Name-That-Brew must be the brewmaster's favorite game at other pubs--so we end up drinking things like "Rainbow Trout Stout" and "Cryin' Coyote Western Ale."

Speaking of what we call things, what about this term "chicken-fried"? Chicken-fried steak means something--battered beef. But then, ridiculously and redundantly, restaurants started offering "chicken-fried chicken" (as opposed to what-- "French-fried chicken"? "Steak-fried chicken"?) Chicken-fried quail is one of the three appetizers on RSB's menu. It's hard to say why it isn't just "fried quail," unless the gravy has something to do with it. These little Texas birds were clothed in a coat of crispy batter, chicken-fried, and yet not overcooked. Great finger food. And they came with thick white gravy which looked properly like library paste (or so we assume, though most of us have seen more cream gravy than library paste). This kind of gravy originated in the pan, using the drippings from frying the chicken to make the roux. Since "chicken-fried" now means deep-fried, there are no drippings, but cream gravy may also be made from bacon drippings (that's when it comes with your breakfast biscuits).

This particular gravy was inspired by the latter, and the menu claimed it was made with apple-smoked bacon. You'll have to take the apple-smoked part on faith--at any rate, my palate is not refined enough to sort the smoke fumes out of a cup of gravy. It did taste like bacon, though.

Another appetizer, a slice of mushroom strudel, was large and rich enough to make a meal. Resting in a plate of cheese rarebit sauce, the pastry, flaky and brown, wrapped around meaty brown mushrooms and a layer of melting cheese. It was as rich as an enchilada and more like one than a strudel, but we liked it, and it does take big food to stand up to beer.

The ale-steamed mussels were as fine as any mussels I've had, their black shells opened to their sexy salmon-colored meat, swimming in garlicky butter with an added beery perfume. We could have used more than two slices of bread for sopping, and again, this was enough food for dinner.

But we did have dinner, and we committed ourselves to a full glass of one of the sampled brews. The beef (all Black Angus, which is doing a great marketing job--this brand is on so many menus now), a small ribeye, was perfectly cooked, dark and crisped on the outside, wet red within, with a winey bordelaise sauce on the side. Ground into a substantial burger, Black Angus beef was served on a black pumpernickel bun, making a luxurious version of the Stoneleigh P burger, served here with fried sweet potatoes or cold German potato salad.

The grilled chicken was boned, but still had the skin on, so it was actually juicy, not the bloodless white meat we're all accustomed to. All the entrŽes came with a mountain of light mashed potatoes, with a bare bite of horseradish. The chicken and beef came with remarkable Bartlett pear-red cabbage slaw--sweet, tart, plum-colored, and pretty.

The only failure was the special, a serving of wiener schnitzel pounded as big as a plate, scattered with capers, with only a lemon wedge to water the desert of crust. It was, yes, chicken-fried. The bread was disappointing, too, both black and dill bread rolls slightly stale. But these few little problems are what they can pull together. We hope that working on these small projects will keep 'em so busy they won't mess with the rest of it.

Routh Street Brewery, 3011 Routh Street, 922-8835. Open Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-midnight; Thursday-Saturday 11 a.m.-1 a.m.

Routh Street Brewery:
Wild mushroom strudel $5.25
Chicken fried Texas quail $5.25
Certified Black Angus ribeye steak $16.75
Hickory grilled half chicken $10.75
Homemade cherry pie $4.75

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