Posted On: 01/01/2015
Strangers who talk to each other on commuter trains are happier than those who plug in and tune out, according to a recent study by behavior researchers at the University of Chicago. Florian Kuplent and David Wolfe, owners of Urban Chestnut Brewing Co., didn’t need a research study to understand the power of putting strangers together when they launched the 70,000-square-foot flagship brewery, warehouse, retail store, restaurant and German-style beer hall in The Grove’s renovated Renard Paper Company building early last year.
From the aroma of fermenting mash to the high-ceilinged interior with its shiny concrete floors, there’s no mistaking this enormous place for anything but a brewery. Four stainless-steel brewing tanks stand behind the sleek metal bar, which nearly stretches the length of the dining area. With its long rows of hefty wooden tables and bare benches, the cavernous room looks like the Hofbrauhaus went industrial. When it’s packed, the din rises to nerve-jangling levels. When it’s dead, it’s as lonely and sterile as Union Station.
With the expansion comes a full kitchen and new emphasis on food, notably German- and Western European-inspired fare made by chef Andrew Fair and designed for extended beer drinking. Where the Midtown location’s menu is snack-focused and light, The Grove’s repertoire has decidedly more swagger. Take the pork knuckle, the uninvitingly named Bavarian specialty that almost sounds better in German: schweinshaxe. The flavorful, locally sourced pork is roasted, shredded and shaped into small patties. An order gets you two of these on silver dollar-sized wheat rolls, each topped with tangy house-made sauerkraut and a smear of pungent coarse-ground mustard, also made in-house. On the side comes a salad of winter greens with white beans and chewy wheat berries, dressed in a heavy-handed mustard vinaigrette that was more distracting then complementary.
Strammer Max, an open-faced sandwich on buttered rye toast, could well be called breakfast for dinner: melted French comté cheese molded like hot wax around a mound of shaved Black Forest ham slathered with onion jam and crowned with a sunny-side-up egg. A fine ensemble, though the jam proved just sweet enough to throw the other flavors out of balance.
Several dishes are easily shareable. Poutine, the (in?)famous Canadian dish of pomme frites ladled with cheese, gravy and meat, changes daily. I liked how the diced carrots offered the illusion I was eating something healthy amid the delicious mess of crumbled bratwurst gravy. Four meat boards are available, including one with bratwurst. Sourced from St. Louis’ G&W Bavarian Style Sausage Co., the two fat links lie on a bed of salty sauerkraut, with a dollop of German mustard, rye toast and thick-sliced fingerling potato salad arranged around the board. While not spectacular, it still made for a good nosh between pints. The brandade beignets were heavy – more like hush puppies than doughnuts – but this hardly mattered to us as we devoured the three golf ball-sized orbs of puréed salt cod and potato jacketed in Zwickel-based beer batter.
Raclette is a popular Western European dish that involves heating a hunk of the sweet-nutty cheese of the same name and slicing it onto plates of vegetables and meats. UCBC’s approximation consisted of a miniature cast-iron pan of boiler onions, cauliflower, fingerling potatoes and cornichons topped with a slice of raclette melted under a broiler. It makes a perfect snack for those needing an infusion of fresh vegetables.
The logistics of segregated ordering – beer at the bar and food at a separate kitchen counter – can seem a hassle. When you order, the kitchen loans you a handy buzzer to notify you when the food is ready. Still, it doesn’t solve the back-and-forth trips of getting beer, finding a spot, standing in line to order food, then going back to pick it up, all while paying in two separate places. (Hint: Start a tab at the bar and the kitchen can add your food order to it.) Then again, with food this heavy, you’ll need the exercise. I would have liked more information on which beers go best with individual foods; some bartenders were better versed than others with pairing suggestions. I found UCBC’s Bushelhead cider the most consistently balanced match for nearly every dish. Made with saison yeast, it was neither too sweet nor too dry.
But mostly there is beer – 32 taps’ worth. UCBC brews both American and German-style craft beers, as represented by its Revolution and Reverence series. The former focuses on modern, creative styles like powerful IPAs, Imperials and seasonal ales that use ingredients like spruce and pumpkin. The latter pays tribute to timeless European styles of lightly hopped, lower-alcohol lagers, wheat beers and Pilsners.
UCBC’s Grove location draws an eclectic mix of patrons; it can feel like a college party with all the skinny jeans and slim-cut shirts, or a neighborhood gathering of old friends with graying hair and pot bellies. And that’s the beauty of a convivial communal space based on beer and food. At the very least, chat it up with the stranger across the table from you. You’ll be happier when you do.
4465 Manchester Ave., St. Louis, 314.222.0143, urbanchestnut.com
Don’t Miss Dishes
Pork knuckle sandwich, poutine
The humongous, minimalistic space is communal and can get as loud as the Edward Jones Dome.
$8 to $14
Sun. – Noon to 7 p.m., Mon. – 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tue. to Thu. – 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Fri. and Sat. – 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.
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