Occasionally while on the road, you stumble into a place that is so impressive in design, scope and execution that it literally takes your breath away. After returning your jaw to its upright and locked position, you look to your travel companions and holler above the din, "I WISH WE HAD A PLACE LIKE THIS IN CLEVELAND!"
Well, now we do. Butcher and the Brewer is the most ambitious, audacious and daring dining project to land in Cleveland since pioneering showman Nick Kostis opened his $5-million fun-zone, Pickwick & Frolic, just down the block. Stepping off East Fourth Street and into this cavernous, cacophonous beer hall is a jolt to the senses, where every turn of the head reveals another facet of the sweeping operation.
Butcher and the Brewer succeeds first and foremost as a "Great American Beer Hall" because it brews great beer and serves it up in a historic old hall. Unlike other outsized beer destinations —Hofbräuhaus, for one — B&B comes by its pedigree honestly, inheriting a 100-year-old warehouse space in the heart of downtown. There's a clear shot straight through the gymnasium-size room to the 10-barrel brewery, which literally is placed on a pedestal. From the jump, brewmaster Eric Anderson, a graduate of the Master Brewing Program at the Siebel Institute of Technology, has been producing a wide range of stellar suds.
But Butcher and the Brewer goes well beyond the modest culinary ambitions of the typical brewpub by throwing considerable resources at all aspects of the operation. So, in addition to the brewmaster, there's an executive chef (Jim Blevins), chef de cuisine (Mitch Keener), butcher (Rex Workman) and even house charcutier (Nate Sieg). While we're naming names, the management team consists of Jason Workman, Chris Lieb and Jeff Leonard, whom you might recall from such restaurants as the Tremont Taphouse.
In-house butchers are all the rage, and here Workman's efforts are on full display. A see-through meat locker reveals full sides of swinging Ohio beef, which is ground into burgers, sliced into steaks and dried into jerky. Even the bones are utilized — sawed in half lengthwise, roasted and served with a spoon to scoop out the quivering marrow. Likewise for pork, which delivers innumerable gifts in the form of crisp, poufy pork rinds, fat lardons of bacon and towering pork shanks.
B&B encourages grazing which, in fact, is the best way to tackle the wide-ranging menu. Order a beer — say, a crisp German kolsch ($5.50) or pumpkin saison ($6.50) — and toss in a quick order of snacks while you dig deeper into the options. Those pillowy pork rinds ($6), dusted in a spicy, vinegary cheese powder, are a great place to start. While you're at it, tack on an order of the bacon-wrapped dates ($8), which are like chorizo-filled, pig-skinned, fruit-glazed bonbons. Charcuterie boards ($12) dotted with wee jars of silky smooth, intensely flavored chicken liver mousse, fat slices of rustic, pistachio-studded French pate, and coriander-scented summer sausage — all housemade with local beef and pork — also make great launching points.
Our server one night suggested the corndogs ($10), an item we had little interest in. But they were fun and fantastic. Imagine fair food designed by chefs and that's pretty much what you get. The house-smoked weenies are skewered, dipped and fried in just the right fashion. Meaty smoked wings ($10), embedded in a slick of blue cheese puree, are messy, zesty goodness.
Meat dishes, naturally, shine here. House-ground burgers ($12) — roasted in the smoky Josper oven — are lush, beefy and delicious. A pyramid-shaped pork shank ($21) falls apart with a gentle nudge. The sweet barbecued meat is tucked, along with various salsas, into thick corn tortillas. There is always a special Butcher's Cut, a roasted and sliced hangar steak one night, a Sierra steak another. There are fish and vegetarian dishes too, like a comforting shrimp and grits ($16), topped with a runny egg, or a hot crock of mac & cheese ($9).
The term "communal dining" gets tossed around here plenty, but that's just code for, "You'll get your food when it's ready." That's perfectly acceptable with snacks and starters, but one diner at our table was completely finished with his entree before the remaining ones even appeared. Communal tables are all about dining with strangers and making new friends, but don't expect to just plop down at any of the lengthy tables as they are very likely reserved for somebody else. And despite the unquestionable quality, you can't help but feel that items are a buck or two overpriced.
If you have ever attended a Dinosaur Jr. concert, you can relate to the noise level here. It's a big room, filled with tons of people who are having a lot of fun. It gets loud. As hell.
As impressive as the project already is, there's more to come. A retail butcher shop, visible from the bar, will open in early 2015. And when the lower-level speakeasy opens around the same time, this restaurant still won't be operating at capacity. That will happen in spring, when the patio opens, bringing the total number of well-fed guests to around 300.
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