Without doubt, the biggest beer news in St. Louis this year — maybe the biggest news in St. Louis, period — was InBev's buyout of Anheuser-Busch. But as we wait anxiously to learn what impact this will have on the city's economy, we can at least comfort ourselves with the knowledge that in the pint glass, if not on the business page, this has been a pretty good year for beer in St. Louis.
A greater variety of craft beer is available in retail shops. Terrific beer lists were a big draw at two new restaurants, the Shaved Duck and the Stable, while the Stable and two other new spots, Buffalo Brewing Co. and Mattingly Brewing Co., are developing their own suds (though as I write this, only Buffalo Brewing Co. has made its beer available). Our two craft breweries, Schlafly and O'Fallon, have introduced intriguing new beers to their strong lineups. And the past twelve months have seen several new gastropubs open: Newstead Tower Public House, Tigín and Wm. Shakespeare's Gastropub.
As St. Louis's beer culture continues to evolve, it would be easy to lose sight of one of the earliest outposts, the Schlafly Tap Room. Entering its eighteenth year, the brewpub had settled into a comfortable groove: excellent beer, decent grub, a convivial atmosphere. If anything the Tap Room had become too comfortable, a reliable standby rather than a sought-after destination. When my wife and I moved here five years ago, it quickly became a fixture in our Friday-dinner rotation — a few pints, pretzels, and fish and chips providing a satisfying end to a long week. But recently when I thought of visiting the Tap Room, it was mainly to enjoy a favorite Schlafly seasonal brew on draft.
Enter Andy White. White is one of St. Louis' best-known chefs, having logged stints at Harvest, Balaban's and, most recently, Off the Vine. He is also a personal favorite. I'm fairly certain that I was the only outspoken fan of the short-lived "new" Balaban's, and while the menu he developed for Off the Vine was more conservative than his board at Balaban's (no sweetbreads or rabbit), he still turned out fine fare from a small kitchen.
White departed Off the Vine this summer. Soon thereafter Schlafly announced that he would become executive chef at the Tap Room. I was intrigued. He couldn't transform the Tap Room into a contemporary bistro. (Could he?) Yet he wouldn't take command just to keep turning out brats and pretzels. (Would he?)
In fact, White has done a little of both. Your favorite Tap Room dishes remain — brats, the soft pretzel sticks with white-cheddar dip and the fish and chips are included among the "Tap Room Classics." To this White has added a selection of sandwiches, appetizers and entrées that conform to a more current idea of pub cuisine, with a few nods to bistro fare.
One of the most distinctive new dishes is the pissaladière, a Nice specialty that looks like a flatbread pizza but is actually a thin puff pastry topped with a thick layer of caramelized onions, sliced olives and bracingly fresh anchovies. Though my pissaladière was a bit burnt around the edges, the brininess of the olives and anchovies made an excellent pairing with a crisp, floral Hop Harvest beer.
Brandade fritters were one of my favorite appetizers from White's menu at Balaban's. Here he serves the deep-fried salt cod preparation atop pepper jam, then tops it all with a rich chive aioli. While I don't expect artful presentations at the Tap Room, here the plating struck me as unnecessarily sloppy, with one fritter drowning in aioli while the others were merely brushed with it. Once I spread the mayo around a bit, it provided a sharp foil for the brandade, though it still overwhelmed the pepper jam.
The highlight of the new entrées is the roasted rock hen. The bird itself was very good, with crisp skin and a more pronounced flavor, especially in the dark meat, than insipid supermarket chickens. That said, don't dwell too long on the chicken alone: Swirl the meat in the thick, tawny giblet gravy and then pair it on your fork with the side dish of barley. The combination evokes the autumn harvest, especially when accompanied by a full-flavored, medium-bodied beer (I recommend the cask-conditioned American Pale Ale).
The crab boil features a snow crab leg so large and unwieldy that you might mistake it for some kind of auto-repair tool. Surrounding it in a shallow bowl are clams, mussels, shrimp, potatoes and corn. The crab meat tasted fine — you have to try really hard to screw up steamed or boiled crab — but the broth was so salty that it rendered the potatoes inedible.
The only outright disappointment (besides a lingering wish for even more selections among the new entrées) was the strip steak. Though it came with a tart, tasty housemade Worcestershire sauce and the Tap Room's awesome fries, the steak was a poor cut, on the fatty side and not thick enough to benefit from being cooked to medium-rare. For my $15 I'd rather have a flank or hanger steak — "lesser" cuts that often pack more flavor. (And at Balaban's White served an absolutely killer hanger steak.)
White redeemed himself with the "Tap Room Burger," which managed to be juicy and deeply flavored despite being made with ground sirloin instead of chuck. It comes with white cheddar and housemade pickles on the world's most underrated burger vehicle, an English muffin.
The burger is one of several sandwiches on the new menu. The beef brisket, smoked in-house, is very tender and served with a stout jus that deepens its already full flavor. My only complaint is that the brisket should be better trimmed: I had to separate thick strips of unctuous fat from each slice on the sandwich. The standout sandwich pairs fried eggs and sliced ham with rocket-spiced mayo. It's the ultimate breakfast sandwich, ample enough to serve as lunch or dinner.
I shouldn't overstate the Tap Room's transformation. Even the word "transformation" is too strong. The space is unchanged: dark, loud and — if you're too close to the bar — smoky. Service can be spotty, especially at dinner. But for a restaurant that could have stayed as it was indefinitely, or at least until Schlafly stops turning out great beers, it's heartening to see this old favorite revitalized.
After all, now that Schlafly is the biggest American-owned brewery in St. Louis, people are going to expect more.