It's funny the tropes we adhere to and never question. One of those in American cookery is this: Beer goes with greasy, hearty food, while wine goes with refined food. We're still not sure where cocktails fit in.
Which is why the menu at the new Eagle Rock Public House is such a surprise. The restaurant, which is the first dining venture from the folks at Eagle Rock Brewery, is nothing like what you'd expect from a brewpub. This is barely even gastropub food — there are no burgers, no hearty sandwiches, no French fries and no clever takes on British pub food; no bangers, no mash.
Eagle Rock Brewery owner Jeremy Raub opened the Public House back in December, along with his wife and co-owner, Ting Su. The open and airy space in the old Fatty's location on Colorado Boulevard is classic vintage storefront real estate, unencumbered by that other scourge of beer-centric eateries, the big-screen television. Thank God.
In the kitchen they've installed Jerry Su, who is Ting Su's brother, and who also has experience in some highly regarded kitchens, including time at David Chang's Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York and Son of a Gun here in L.A. Given that background, you can understand why he's straying from the obvious comfort food you'd expect to find at a brewery restaurant and instead presenting modern, often surprising cooking, which may be the most ambitious in the neighborhood.
The menu goes from small to large, beginning with a couple of elegant raw-fish dishes, moving through snacks such as potted pig and smoked fish dip with Ritz crackers (which is about as pubby as this menu gets), a few almost entree-sized "composed plates," and on to large-format dishes that run in the $25-to-$40 range and are supposed to feed two to four people. The small plates/large plates setup is familiar enough, but almost everything else about this menu is refreshingly original.
There are plenty of hamachi crudos in this world, but few of them reach the complexity of Jerry Su's, which combines the glossy fish with the grassy sting of shiso leaf, the bright kiss of yuzu koshu and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds, all set in a cooling dashi flavored with apple.
There's a Broadbent country ham plate, upon which feathery slices of the salty, smoky ham are placed alongside a collection of teeny square cornmeal biscuits still warm from the oven. Mustard butter gives them just the right amount of luxuriant fat and tang.
The ambition on the menu usually works, and even the most outrageous ideas are often fantastically surprising, such as a dessert of "churrones," which are basically chicharrones made from beef fat that you dip into a spicy hot chocolate. They crackle when they go in the chocolate, and it's hard to not be overcome by a childish glee at the fun and noise and delicious spicy chocolate silliness of the thing.
Not all the experimentation works, and one dish in particular tested the bounds of what's inventive and what's just weird. A Cornish hen is brined and smoked before being fried and served with a nettle chimichurri. A waiter warned us as he set the dish down that due to the smoking, the flesh underneath its batter crust might appear to be pink, but not to worry. "It's definitely cooked," he said. The color is not what bothered me so much as the texture — something about the process of smoking, brining and frying indeed gives the bird the stretchy, rubbery texture of undercooked poultry. Even if it's cooked through, and I'm sure it is, that doesn't make the pantomime of rawness any more appealing.
There is one larger problem with all of this, of course, and it's the most obvious problem of all: As much as I'd like to discourage people from the knee-jerk expectation that a brewery should serve traditional pub fare, the truth is that much of this food would pair better with wine.
Whoever put together the drinks list is thinking about this in a rudimentary way by including a small selection of sour ciders, which do match with some of the more delicate dishes better than Eagle Rock Brewery's hearty beers (of which there is a rotating selection on tap and in the bottle). But I wish Jerry Su was thinking about it as well.
Very few chefs have taken the opportunity to cook for beer drinkers and pushed past the obvious choice of gourmet burgers and elevated bar food. Chef Su gets close to this with occasional dishes, such as his Korean-kissed beef ribs, which come on the bone over broken rice with pools of spicy sauce described on the menu as "pureed kimchi." This is food that's meant for beer, but still surprising and creative and sidestepping the clichés of the genre.
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For every dish like those beef ribs, though, there was one like the whole grilled branzino, which cried out for a wine list to match it. There are a couple of wines here (literally — two whites, two reds), and they're fine. But I'm not sure this food harmonizes enough with the drinks objective of its location.
The service, too, is a little wonky, with some waiters giving the hushed and fawning descriptions of fine dining, while others rush to get your order and forget to bring you silverware. Some want to discuss the beer and cider and menu in detail, others would rather have as little contact as possible. In other words, some of them are in tune with the tone of the food, while others seem better suited for a more traditional beer-hall setting.
Conventions in life and food have value, but they're also made to be tested and revised. Beer and burgers is a love story grand and true, and to pull them apart in order to try to remake beer's match with delicate crudo, or scallops with seaweed emulsion, is perhaps a little awkward. But hell, I applaud the attempt to buck tradition; I'm a sucker for chefs and restaurateurs who do what they want rather than what's expected of them. And the food at Eagle Rock Public House demonstrates a pioneering spirit as well as an abundance of talent. Cheers to that.
EAGLE ROCK BREWERY PUBLIC HOUSE | Two stars | 1627 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock | (323) 739-0081 | eaglerockpublichouse.com | Mon.-Wed., 6-11 p.m. Brunch (as of March 7) Sat. & Sun., 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. | Plates, $7-$37 | Beer and wine | Street parking