It's a struggle in the wake of the election to write about a new brewpub in a way that makes it seem like it matters. On the day after Trump's victory, I found myself at a table with a few other despondents at Old Irving Brewery, trying to medicate the malignancy of the Orange Cancer with snifters of high-ABV Imperial Black Ale.
This big, boisterous new spot, with a 360-degree bar and cavernous beer hall looking out on the brewing floor's gleaming metal tanks, has its own sad history: it was originally a project of the late, great, revolutionary chef Homaro Cantu until he was found hanging in the raw unbuilt space in April 2015. His partners, Jeff Linnemeyer and brewmaster Trevor Rose-Hamblin, himself a protege of Cantu, carried on, enlisting the culinary mojo of Matthias Merges (Yusho, A10, Billy Sunday), who very recently came to the rescue of another transitioning brewpub when Finch took over from the shuttered Breakroom Brewery just two miles east on Montrose Avenue.
While the postelection protests raged downtown, Old Irving Brewing's picnic tables were full, the flat-screen TVs were tuned to football, and kids played cornhole in a gaming area fenced off in front of the working part of the brewery. This in a way could be rationalized as a form of protest: Bars, cafes, and brewpubs historically have been where the seeds of dissent are sown. They're where the resistance meets and revolutions are born. And they're where the defeated collect for relief, to reflect and regroup. You can never underestimate the psychologically sustaining powers of food and drink.
To that end Merges and Rose-Hamblin have developed complementary food and beer menus that, while perhaps quite different from whatever radical direction Cantu might have pursued, are still original enough to make Old Irving more than just a neighborhood hang. Even brewpub givens get special treatment.
The menu is executed by Merges lieutenant Michael Shrader, of the late Urban Union, who's armed with the most current restaurant weaponry (aka a wood-fired oven). Deviled eggs are laced with sriracha and nestled among pickled shimeji mushrooms and dabs of charred-scallion puree. Smooth garlic mashed potatoes arrive emulsified with more than enough butter to soothe your shattered nerves. A half chicken roasts in the kitchen fire and is plated atop fingerlings roasted in its coals, charred lemons and Calabrian chiles bringing the light. A grass-fed beef burger has a distinct crusty char armoring pink beef, though it's a bit overwhelmed by the focaccia delivery system. A BLT with avocado is built upon soft, open-crumb bread made from the brewery's spent grains, a tender but more than capable vessel for the thick slabs of applewood-smoked bacon therein.
Shrader makes good use of that bacon. Thick, mapled lardons of it appear with the caramelized brussels sprouts as well as the aged-cheddar mac and cheese. But it's the more unexpected bar food that distinguishes Old Irving Brewing. Pig's feet croquettes contain an almost molten core of porky goodness, their richness cut by fruity pickled chiles, while a salt cod brandade awaits in the interior of fritters battered with the brewery's kolsch. Flaps of tender, cold braised beef tongue wag over a cool, crispy salad of potato and radish, and lengths of meaty roasted eggplant are slung among plump golden raisins, harissa-spiked yogurt, and almond-mint pesto.
There are an unusual number of seafood dishes at Old Irving: a plate of fire-roasted and chilled squid, shrimp, clams, and mussels is drizzled with a vinaigrette made from their shells, while prawns are bisected, roasted, and served with jasmine rice and drawn butter. But the crowning achievement of Merges's menu—and bar-food wise, its most unconventional plate—is a whole roasted fish: in my case a fat, juicy pompano, sauced Chinese style with chiles, ginger, cilantro, and funky fermented black beans.
Desserts, apart from an ice cream beer float, are less disruptive, and include apple crisp and a dense chocolate pudding.
Among the token three wines, half-dozen cocktails, and six bottles and cans from outside breweries, Rose-Hamblin's beer really ought to be the priority here, most brewed with some sort of culinary element in flavor if not practice. Of these a beer said to evoke pho has been 86'd, but the Precinct, a smooth, thick milk stout, brewed with chocolate malt, lactose, cocoa nibs, and vanilla, really does live up to the claim that it tastes of coffee and doughnuts. The brewery's fruity Belgian Dubbel Half Caf No Whip is brewed with red kuri squash and baking spices, while the hoppiness of the Pinnacle to the Pith, a Belgian double IPA made in collaboration with DryHop Brewers, gets a citrus boost from grapefruit juice. The signature Scentinel IPA has an even more pronounced citrus character, while the aforementioned IBA Black Monday is a meal in itself. About the only expression on the current beer menu that isn't a patent success is a collaboration with Pipeworks: the Holloway, a watery Berliner Weiss given a floral note from a Rare Tea Cellar tea blend.
It's a rare down note on the two menus at this promising brewpub, which, while no answer to our load of trouble, is at least capable of lightening it for a bit. v