Posted by mike | Filed under Reviews
So what was the last thing I wrote up? The restaurant party contest? Times have been very busy at work—weekends and all. The good news: it hasn’t prevented me from trying several new places; the bad news: I haven’t posted anything about those trips. Consider this post a quick stab at getting started on the backlog…starting with Penn Brewery.
Penn Brewery & Restaurant
800 Vinial St
Pittsburgh, PA 15212
If you haven’t read my preview post from growler hours the week before they opened, go catch up. After that preview post, I went back—twice. Once with some friends during the soft opening, and again with the Pittsburgh Beer Meetup. Both visits were on week nights, so there was still quite a bit of open space at the tables around us. It will be interesting to see how crowded things get now that they’re back in full swing (or on the weekends).
In the beer hall. One thing to note about Penn Brewery is that it’s a big place: the main room is really a big German beer hall—very much like the main hall at Hofbräuhaus (without the frat party). Penn Brewery’s hall is smaller (less than half the size), but has quite a bit more character and plenty of history. I like to think of the place as the bier hall for those looking to avoid bouncers and skip the shots served off skis. I’ll opt for beer over bouncers any day. Plus, they offer plenty of parking in a somewhat dilapidated but still completely functional two story garage.
German food with a bit of ‘Burgh flare. Much of you see on the new menu will look familiar (both lunch and dinner). There’s no shortage of sausage, sauerkraut, and plenty of big hearty sandwiches (fear not, I have photos). What’s new is a little bit more interesting to me: a lighter side with even a few veggie options—though I still think those options could use some work.
Really, some healthy options? Yep. In addition to the very German and very Pittsburgh appetizers/entrees/sandwiches, they now have a salad section of the menu (though even it includes a <em>Pittsburgh Salad</em>). They even open up a salad bar at lunch, but I’ve never seen it in action to really comment on it. The brewery even seems to be opening up to veggie-friendly options outside the restaurant: the offered up vegetarian sloppy Joes that I completely missed at their annual Microbrew Festival. The reports I’ve heard so far are that they were actually pretty good.
Still not a health-nut-haven, but that’s okay. Though it’s refreshing to see a classic Pittsburgh establishment open up a little bit to a more health-conscious dining public, it is still a German restaurant—not a haven for healthy eating. I’m fine with that status, but I still don’t want to give the wrong impression in this post. Outside the salad section, the whole menu is both starch heavy and calorie dense. That’s what German food tends to be, and, for many people, that’s exactly the draw.
One annoyance to note: every freakin’ salad included bacon by default (short of the Gurkensalat, with cucumbers and dill). If the bacon offends you, don’t forget to ask them to hold it.
Seriously authentic sourdough rye. While you’re waiting for food, they bring out a very traditional Rye sourdough bread. I don’t normally comment on table bread, but this one has a great story. According to Mary Beth Pastorious (the brewer’s wife and who I would call the restaurant organizer), she and Tom brought a sample loaf back from a trip out to Deutschland. They bought a loaf at the airport and, immediately after arriving in Pittsburgh, made their way to Breadworks for their bakers to sample and create a recipe of their own. As I would expect from Breadworks, the results were quite notable: lots of sourdough and rye flavor, and definitely worth trying.
For my dinner, I ordered the Brewhouse Salad.I’m a bit of an advocate for skipping special requests when ordering, so I didn’t ask them to hold the bacon (showing once again, that I’m not really a vegetarian). I’m thinking I’d put in the request for future visits—I’ll eat it, but it’s more than worth avoiding. Other than bacon, I’d say the salad was quite good. I noted mixed greens, diced tomato, red onion, hard boiled egg, toasted sunflower seeds and a fairly light dusting of shredded cheddar cheese. That all makes for a pretty good mix, plus that was just a big version of the Grüner Salat. That’s the side salad, so there’s a convenient smaller option to pair with something else: a big win from my perspective.
Going around the table. I didn’t capture the complete spread of entrees at my table, but I did capture some of the highlights when I went out with friends. First off, both the Braumeister Steak and Über-big Schnitzel sandwiches were well-presented and huge, if that’s what you’re looking for. It’s been so long that I can’t quite remember comments from the ones ordering. The Braumeister is really just a cheese steak, with Gouda replacing a more traditional cheese topping. The schnitzel looks a little more interesting, but I still wouldn’t call it very German. Both sandwiches appeared on what looked like a high quality roll, which I’m guessing was a huge plus.
For the more traditional entrees, I have photos for the Wurst Platte, the Hungarian Goulash and the Käsespätzle. The wurst is self explanatory, but Goulash could really go anwhere. It looks like Penn served up an extremely thick variant—more like a gravy than a stew, served over homemade egg noodle.
While the Käsespätzel does come with a side salad, the menu decides to call it “a vegetarian favorite,” which I find a little irritating. Though the dish doesn’t include meat, I find that most vegetarians are exceptionally health-conscious. With the exception of religion-inspired vegetarianism, a healthy lifestyle is usually a big part of the rational for going veg. A big plate of cheese drenched dumplings is…anything but. My take, it’s vegetarian, but I suspect not one of that crowd’s favorites. It’d also be nice to have the salad in a separate dish from the hot portion of the entree.
The beer is what’s drawing me in. Obviously, beer is a major draw for Penn Brewery. That alone is really what keeps me interested (and posting more about them than I ought to). Much like Höfbrau, they focus on German styles and keep the list relatively small: I imagine that the number of lager’s on the list. Unlike Fat Heads, they serve up only their own beer.
To avoid repeating myself, I’ll just quote my beer discussion from my growler hours visit:
Because it’s really all about the beer. At least, that’s where I stand. If you’ve ever followed Penn in the past, the beer options will look familiar—with the exception of the newly established Allegheny Pale Ale (their first American stylebeer). The traditional options all represent classic German styles: a Dunkel (Penn Dark), a Helles (Penn Gold), a Märzen (Pen Pilsner), and a German Pilsner (Kaiser Pils).
Also worth noting; Jeff Bearer, of Craft Beer Radio fame, is a continual advocate for their Penn Weizen Hefeweizen—though it hasn’t yet returned to the rotation. If you like the style, be sure to keep an eye out for it’s return.
Some pale ale improvement. The first time I tried the Allegheny Pale Ale, at their very first public event in the fall, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Penn’s first attempt at an Ale tasted…well, a little rough around the edges. The bitterness seemed very much out of balance relative to the malt body of the beer and I detected far too little hop flavor/aroma to really call it an American (or maybe even India?) Pale Ale I think they’re aiming for. This time, I had a chance to sample some more of pale ale from someone else’s pint and came away with a slight better impression. I’m guessing that’s at least partially due to aging, but I’m hopeful there’s also some recipe work taking place.
What’s my final take? Penn Brewery is clearly a Pittsburgh standard. The strong focus on quality beer and a vastly superior atmosphere to some other local beer halls keep me going back, but the menu is still quite a ways from my preferred culinary themes, but I’m probably an outlier and they can’t be all things to all people. Even so, they’re at least trying to serve up a lighter side with a new offering of some quality salads (if they ditch the bacon on at least one of them). Basically, they’re now the type place where you could go even if you have a vegetarian friend in your group. Honestly, that leaves my feelings for the place all over the map.
If someone asked me what I thought, I’d almost have different answers for different people—more so than another place I review. If you’re a beer enthusiast, I’d say they’re a must try. If you’re just a foodie or maybe a health nut, then Penn Brewery is still worth a shot but probably not the top of your list. If you’re into big plates of well-prepared German food, they probably shoot right back to the top. I tend to be the foodie/health nut, but the beer guy in me means I’ll always be a big supporter.