Envious as she was of friends who have been quoted by name in this column for their bons mots about this restaurant or that, my buddy Julie very much wanted to find her way into this review. So the last time we stopped in at Square One Brewery a few weeks back our second visit together and my third overall she was riffing about the nine-week-old microbrewery/eatery in rapid-fire desperation.
"'Brewery' is an ugly-sounding word, but Square One's drafts are lovely."
"By fermenting its own cerveza on-site, Square One brings beermaking back to square uno."
"Makes A-B products taste like a C-minus."
Just as I was preparing to tell her to shut up already, she suggested, "It's kinda like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but with booze. There are all these twists and turns, but instead of a river of chocolate flowing inside, they're churning out vats of beer. And you love it so much, you kind of end up falling into it."
I pondered her last observation while sipping my beer flight, a quartet of short tasting glasses that showcase Square One's brews. Certainly an infatuation with suds akin to Wonka's candy fervor must have fueled this latest incarnation of the corner space most recently occupied by Lafayette Pub & Grill. (A rowdy 3 a.m. joint that met an untimely end in a fire back in June 2004, the Lafayette has since reopened in Soulard.) As a matter of fact, Square One owner Steve Neukomm ran a restaurant at this same location back in the 1980s, Ronayne's, which used to hold an annual grape stomp on the brick patio. He also owns wine country's Augusta Brewing Company. Clearly, the man likes to make booze. And he's got a laudable love for St. Louis' status in the annals of brewing. The building that houses Square One was once owned by Anheuser-Busch, which operated a turn-of-the-century tavern that exclusively served A-B products; the legendary Griesedieck Bros. managed a similar business a block away.
A number of Square One's gleaming stainless steel tanks beckon from behind tall glass panes, contrasting nicely with the restaurant's russet-toned interior. You can almost imagine a besotted beer drinker sneaking up the little wooden stepladder perched beside a vat and plunging in headfirst, à la Augustus Gloop. (Come to think of it, Julie could pull it off.)
Square One offers a dozen beers on tap, all of them unpasteurized (i.e., "fresh-brewed"). They're available by the pint, 22-ounce imperial pint, take-home glass half-gallon "growler" or in flights of four. Liberal pours make those flights a bargain at $5 a pop, but the generosity also means an uphill slog to the finish. For indecisive drinkers who doubt their own stamina, the bartenders are happy to provide complimentary single-sip tastes.
The beer menu is crafted with more care than most local wine lists. The "drinkable" stout was just that, rich without being weighty. Also as advertised, India Pale Ale offered a "malty taste and clean, bitter finish" one of the best IPAs I've had while the Belgian Red made good on its promise of "mild fruitiness and clove spiciness." The essence of Nut Brown Ale proved slippery on my tongue, a dance of varied aromas including, yes, nuttiness. And though I appreciated the Bavarian Weizen, an unfiltered, light-amber wheat beer with a tart aftertaste, my weizen allegiance lies with Schlafly, whose hefeweizen is pure sunshine in a pint glass.
As might be expected of any microbrewery worth its hops, beer appears in a number of the kitchen's dishes. There's beer-battered this and beer-battered that: breaded shrimp, chicken tenders, a grouper fillet sandwiched between thick slices of focaccia or plated with the day's vegetable and side of starch.
I've never fully cottoned to the practice of beer battering. The term sounds appealing, but once a piece of meat meets its fate in a pool of hot oil, how can the flavor of a shot of ale hope to carry through? The highlight of the breaded shrimp appetizer was the shrimp, jumbo in size and pleasingly firm in texture. The grouper sandwich, which came with a tangle of handcut chips (a mix of sweet potatoes and Yukon Golds) fell short of any superlatives; it was marred by the incongruous use of focaccia and made no better or worse by a blunt dollop of mildly spiced Cajun remoulade. Nary a whiff of beer essence was evident in either dish.
Skipping ahead to dessert, a stout brownie encountered the same problem. Perhaps the stout's robust chocolate and coffee notes simply blend in too well; it tasted like a very nice homemade brownie, and that was that. Beer cheese soup, meanwhile, sidesteps the quandary of heating off the beer element, as it's presented with a creamer-size pitcher of ale on the side. Before I poured it in, the soup had a creamy, Cheddary resonance and an intriguing consistency best described as "fluffy." Unfortunately the alcohol neutralized both those agreeable qualities.
Square One's food is pleasant, leaning toward hearty and smartly so, the better to match up with a pint yet it's ultimately tame and pat, unlikely to induce anything remotely approaching the gluttonous paroxysms of Gloop.
I don't remember much about the smoked chicken and grilled corn quesadillas, nor the goat cheese, artichoke and spinach dip. Steamed mussels, bathed in a beer broth dotted with bacon, garlic, tomatoes and onions, were ordinary in flavor and texture; the perkiness of the tomatoes was its most memorable feature. I salute the kitchen for including both rings and tentacles in the tempura-fried calamari, but the dish itself left a dim impression on the palate. A platter of nachos decorated with a sprightly corn salsa and confetti-like crumbles of sweet Chihuahua cheese was brought down by burnt chunks of flank steak, relegating that appetizer to the worst of the bunch.
An entrée of smoked salmon fettuccine, accented nicely with bacon and tossed in a substantial chipotle cream sauce that ranked maybe a tick higher on the spicy scale than that Cajun remoulade, was average. I really wanted to love the mahi-mahi tacos, dressed up with more of that corn salsa, and the pumpkin seed-encrusted mahi-mahi fillet, finished with a chipotle tarragon cream nearly identical to the grouper's remoulade and the fettuccini's chipotle sauce. But I've had more memorable fish tacos (Salina's in Chesterfield sets the standard as far as I'm concerned), and I've had breaded fish fillets with far more character than this pumpkin-seeded one. In fact, its side of dill-spiked mashed potatoes stole any thunder the entrée might have offered.
If Square One's hooch evokes one's sense of adventure (and in Julie's case, a supplementary sense of inebriation), the food, alas, does not. But if this brewpub isn't the Golden Ticket to gastronomic Valhalla, it's a welcome entrée into a yeasty, foam-capped oasis.