What is it about this moment in urban history that each stretch of formerly barren, formerly working-class commercial corridor sprouts a brewpub? What's unpredictable about the phenomenon is whether the places are any good. It's been a mixed bag in the last couple of years. From Breakroom Brewery to Band of Bohemia, few have risen to the level of John Manion's moment of glory as the chef at pre-AB-InBev Goose Island or Piece's relentlessly successful pizza pub. Occasionally, a glimmer of hope shines through the murky demijohns, and such a glimmer of hope is Forbidden Root Restaurant & Brewery, housed in the vaulted skeleton of West Town's erstwhile Hub Theatre.
Comparisons to "culinary brewhouse" Band of Bohemia are inevitable. Forbidden Root is brewing "botanical" beers, suds with both subtle and unsubtle food flavors. Ginger, lime, black walnut, licorice, wintergreen, nutmeg, cinnamon, elderflower, cocoa, and pecans permeate these lagers, porters, and pale ales. They're mostly pretty good, and unlike the complicated, confusing pairing scheme at Band of Bohemia, drinking them doesn't seem essential to enjoying the food from chef Dan Weiland, who's put in time at Trenchermen, Blackbird, and Avec.
There may be a method to matching these beers with his simple, intuitive, occasionally twisted pub food (so unlike the overcomplicated plates at BoB)—but unless you ask, staff play it cool. Some have very clear affinities for each other. The mahogany Forbidden Root lager with its cinnamon, nutmeg, and root beer notes goes great with the thin, leathery sheets of lamb jerky. Honey Vee, a floral Vienna lager with notes of jelly bean and toasted coconut, is a refreshing natural with snacky things such as sweet Korean pepper-spiced popcorn or crisp multicolored root vegetable chips.
But for the most part the beers stand on their own. The smolder of the Number Six, a smoked porter, is enhanced by chipotle. A Belgian-style witbier, Money on My Rind spiked with grapefruit and juniper plays on gin and juice. The thick Cherry Amaro Ale is every bit the tonic its Italian herbal liqueur referent is.
Weiland's menu is less predictably inspired, though there are some superlative moments, such as a seemingly mundane plate of soft flattened baby sweet potato drizzled in butter infused with the aromatic French-Indian spice blend vadouvan. All over the menu he harnesses an ability to transform the apparently boring into something special. A kale and spinach salad goes to the Levant with fried chickpeas and a creamy tahini dressing. Cranberry bean hummus tastes just like chickpea hummus, it turns out, but smeared on grilled sourdough and garnished with bits of dried fig, tart sumac, and preserved lemon, it redeems the concept of $9 toast. Even the aforementioned root chips, light, crispy, and well seasoned, are the ideal form of their commonly stale, bland, supermarket cousins. What's more dull than a bowl of cauliflower soup? Here it's slurpable, the crucifer roasted to bring out its sweetness, a smear of thick and vivid curried yogurt along the bowl's surface. An aged cheddar cheese spread spiked with the brewery's own IPA disappears far too quickly with a whole sleeve of Ritz crackers on the side.
I'm always leery of entrees in these situations, but a simple hanger steak (now a ribeye, I'm told) with crispy potato pancakes, mushroom-horseradish cream, turnips, and black garlic jus was executed perfectly. As was a dry-aged duck breast fanned over polenta, with a fragrant dollop of harissa that only needed some chile heat. (Bafflingly, the item has been 86'd.)
Others dishes don't perform quite so well. An underseasoned schnitzel sandwich is slathered with a fuchsia-colored pickled-beet mayo and served with McDonald's-style shoestring fries that demonstrate an uncommon lack of effort coming from this kitchen. Meanwhile a bland gluey mushroom potpie is upstaged by its side of tangy, sauteed chicory, while a plate of chunky deep-fried giardiniera is covered in a pasty undercooked batter.
But overall, this big, bustling, beautiful space with gleaming brew vats on display in the rear is the scene of some refreshingly nongimmicky beer and beer-friendly food. Forbidden Root's the first brewpub in town to figure out how to put the two together. v