When you’re at Small Brewpub, you should probably just order a beer. The house-brewed selections are the constant subject of beer nerds’ raves, and even those who don’t necessarily have a taste for anything fancier than a Michelob Ultra can understand the straightforward flavor profiles of these ultra-sippable beers. They are excellent, but I, embarrassingly, hate beer.
Beer is useless to me — too watery, yeasty and filling to drink enough to achieve that perfect level of drunkenness. I don’t want to drink anything, much less a beer with middling alcohol content, that is as bitter as my own expectations for the future. As such, the wonders of the brewpub are entirely lost on me, even one of Small’s caliber. Thankfully, barman Benj Pocta’s short but inventive cocktail program is there for those of us who prefer something a little stronger as we prepare to repeat over and over throughout dinner that offal can actually delicious.
In addition to a selection of carefully curated classic cocktails, Pocta’s own creations are not to be missed. There is a bright gin fizz served with lime leaf that recalls Thai tom kha soup, a perfect first drink. It seems almost necessary to order the Penultima next, because it should be the next-to-last cocktail you consume. The name sort of demands it, and you’re going to need at least one more drink but probably not more than that. (Who has fewer than three drinks with dinner? Underachievers, that’s who.) Wouldn’t want to risk a DUI on the way back from Oak Cliff.
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The Penultima is a relatively simple cocktail. A decent pour of good (well, at least inoffensive) blanco tequila, house-smoked tea, ginger and a quick shake over ice is all that is really necessary, it seems, to produce a remarkably smooth cocktail with just the right amount of bite. The smoked tea adds smokiness, obviously, giving the drink a more sophisticated finish. With a shot of Del Maguey, this cocktail would be both lethal and perhaps one of the best ways to get a massive dose of smokiness to the face without having to go to a barbecue joint.
Sitting at one of those rustic tables, flanked by brewing tanks and giant sacks of grains that will eventually get people drunk, you'll feel Small Brewpub is much more than a brewpub. It’s as if the minds behind this bar decided to prepare folks for a casual spot to drink and grub and then smack them in the face with food and drink that feels almost impossibly refined. No fancy banquettes or scantily clad servers necessary, just brilliant drinks to accompany even better food.
The cocktail program at Small Brewpub is exactly what the combination of food and cocktails should be. Even as the craft cocktail craze has seeped into every restaurant imaginable, there is frequently a disconnect between the beverage program and the dinner menu, no matter how closely the chefs and bar managers work together. Pocta is functionally chef Misti Norris’ culinary complement behind the bar, crafting drinks that make her already impressive plates look — and taste — even better.
The marriage of the delicately balanced flavors on this drink menu and Norris’ consistently funky-briny-powerful cuisine was all but written in the stars. Small Brewpub is just one of those things that was meant to happen, and meant to change the way we think about boozing while we eat. We so often just enjoy cocktails because they make us feel drunk, but rarely consider how they make us feel about the food we consume alongside them. Here, it’s impossible to call these drinks an afterthought.