Dining review: LowBrau great for beer; food needs some tweaks
06/23/2013 12:00 AM
09/30/2014 7:47 PM
This midtown interpretation of a German beer hall is one of the most exciting and popular newcomers on the local food and bar scene that I can remember, bringing new life, great expectations and all the anticipated little flubs, fumbles and foibles of a place run by two smart and endearing guys who have never done anything remotely like this before.
LowBrau's success so far is best shown by its amazing crowds, even if the demographic pendulum swings, forcefully and sometimes alarmingly, from LowBrau, the discerning beer enthusiast's second home, to BroBrau, the late-night spot for guys with too much Axe body spray hitting on women trying too hard to display their starter tattoos.
On various visits at various times, I saw beer geeks checking out coloration and sizing up aromas while noshing on bratwurst, couples with toddlers and a guy groping one woman and then making out with another while nursing what appeared to be a Jack and Coke.
While its identity continues to sort itself out (I'm pulling for more hopheads, and fewer meatheads), LowBrau's strengths are very impressive, providing the groundwork for greatness in the months and years to come. Some of its shortcomings, for a place so new and appealing, are relatively easy to remedy but not so easy to overlook.
For now, the LowBrau experience is all about the yin and yang – a potentially great place, with issues.
The location is one of the best – right in the thick of things in midtown on the corner of the MARRS project, with plenty of energy and the most eclectic people-watching experience in the city.
This is the heart of midtown living – gay, straight, young and old, along with an emerging sub-species of people who never go anywhere without their yoga mats and Lululemons.
It's all there for me to witness from my perch on the porch – at least it was, until three guys plunked down at my large communal table and lit cigarettes. I know, weird, but I'm partial to breathing clean air, so I headed inside. LowBrau is supposed to have a smoke-free area on this great patio, but when I have visited, nothing was clear, and there were ashtrays/pails all over the place. Enforcing the policy – gently but firmly – would be a great improvement.
Inside, the elephant in the room at LowBrau is that it's about as quiet as a herd of rampaging elephants. For a restaurant or a bar at full capacity, LowBrau is possibly the noisiest place I have ever visited. In one sense, that's a wonderful thing. Noise means excitement. Excitement means success. But it's hard to get too excited about too much noise. It's intrusive. It's stressful. It's overwhelming.
Because of all the hard surfaces, harnessing the noise – allowing it to flourish throughout the room while muffling it at the table level – is an engineering feat that will require expert advice and costly accessorizing. I'm told LowBrau has already hired a consultant and continues to squirrel away money to make the necessary changes.
Adding to the noise is the music. In a place that's already acoustically challenged, why would you hire a DJ to impose on us a self-serious, unironic mix of '80s music at full blast? I'm guessing the consultant would have an answer for that: Don't do it.
Yes, LowBrau's beer program is to die for. If you're seriously into beer – trying new ones, trying famous ones and trying to talk about them over din of the J. Giles Band and Human League – LowBrau is the place to be.
At its heart, LowBrau is about beer, sausage and socializing. The beer list is curated by LowBrau's 36-year-old co-owner Clay Nutting, well known in local circles for his commitment to music education, most notably through his nonprofit, Concerts4Charity. Michael Hargis is the other owner.
Nutting's quest to push boundaries and introduce all manner of styles of beer to Sacramento is very admirable.
His lists, which change often, are a sign that Nutting is forever thinking about balance. The selections are provocative, dynamic, earnest, eccentric, cutting-edge, traditional, artisanal. There's beer made by Trappist monks in Belgium.
On the patio one day I had one of my best beer experiences in memory, drinking an incredible barrel-aged "Loakal Red" made by The Bruery in Orange County. This beer had elegance and nuance, with flavors that seemed to cascade across the palate.
When I returned, seeking it out again, it was gone. In craft beer, it's best not to get stuck on one – there are so many to try.
You can also work your way into sour beer, a relatively new experience for mainstream American beer tastes. But this is where some trial and error – and expert guidance – comes into play. I ordered a Rayon Vert by Green Flash Brewing out of San Diego, along with a Duchesse de Bourgogne, a sour from Belgium.
To my palate, these two very fine beers were as compatible as brushing with Crest and chasing it with orange juice. Even a spicy sausage overloaded with toppings – cheese, hot peppers, sweet peppers, onions – couldn't scrub my palate.
That's not the fault of the beer list. Aside from the knowledgeable bartenders, the servers here offer little if any advice and are noticeably out of their element when fielding beer questions.
For a place with such a great list, the servers simply don't know enough about the beer to be credible. They're not close to what you'd find, knowledge-wise and passion-wise, at Pangaea or The Shack, where I recently sampled a bottle of the world-class monk-made Wesvleteren 12, only to see employees at The Shack eyeing as if they were birdwatchers who had spotted an ivory-billed woodpecker.
Then there's the food. It's sausages, more sausages and salads – some with sausage. The salads were disappointing, mostly because the dressing was nearly tasteless. There's also a large pretzel, which arrived at my table topped with so much salt I thought it was a practical joke.
The sausages, available in various styles and flavors, have potential, but they're just not presented in a way that is interesting or delicious enough. Put sausage in roll. Put toppings on sausage. That's it. There are even vegan options. I had one and – can we say this about a sausage? – it was shriveled up, on the small side and not exactly memorable.
The sausages could be showcased in more varied and interesting ways. Maybe a sausage sampler. A charcuterie plate tailored to pair with certain beer styles. Something beyond hot dogs.
The duck fat fries are tasty, even more so when you upgrade to the "dirty duck fat fries," which come smothered in molten cheese sauce, onions and hot peppers. I shared these with a friend who happens to be a physician, and he agreed that we had just taken two years off the end of our lives. Those two years are overrated anyway.
We also tried the Sunday brunch. For a devil-may-care place, the brunch menu was as straight-laced as a Joel Osteen sermon. Worse, it didn't exhibit enough skill and precision to compete with the best brunch places around, even with the wonderful mid-morning seating on the patio.
In the "farmer's market veggie scramble," I found corn (and learned that corn is pretty delicious in a scramble) and no signs of other vegetables. My omelet was spongy and overcooked, rather than the melt-in-your-mouth creaminess that is the hallmark of a carefully prepared omelet. The French toast featured thin sandwich bread and proved to be too basic and too bland. If you're going to do French toast in this town, it has to at least be as good as the version at the Tower Café & Trinket Emporium.
On its website, LowBrau takes pains to point out that, "We don't take ourselves too seriously." I like the spirit of that message, but in practice, LowBrau would be more fun if it were much more serious about the basics – without being stiffs about it.
For now, LowBrau is a roaring success, complete with flaws (which include roaring). Iron those out, and LowBrau will have all the staying power it needs to evolve as one of the city's great places for food and drink.
1050 20th St., Sacramento
Hours 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily
Beverage options: Full bar, with emphasis on an eclectic and ambitious craft beer list from the world's best breweries.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes, there's even vegan sausage.
Noise level: Ridiculously high. When it's crowded, a comfortable conversation is a challenge.
Overall: Two 1/2 stars(out of 4 stars)
There's so much to love about LowBrau. It's inspiring to see this concept take off and draw such large crowds. The beer list is intelligent, wide-ranging and ever-changing. Yet, many of the basics in service and cooking need to get better before this rating increases.
Food: Two stars
The sausages range from so-so to good, but hey, they're still sausages, and they're just not offered in a way that holds our interest after repeat visits. Craft beer folks might appreciate a menu beyond sausages and fries. The brunch is basic, without the creative flourishes we see at the best midtown spots.
Service: Two stars
Friendly people is one thing, but the servers aren't trained enough in beer to be able to talk about it to serious beer nerds. I'm told that's changing – servers will soon be enrolled in a cicerone (a beer sommelier) course online.
Ambiance: Two stars
This will change to four stars once the issues with acoustics and random smoking on the patio are remedied. It's a wonderful location, full of energy and a showcase of midtown at its finest and most eclectic.
Value: Three stars
While the beer prices are wide-ranging, they're reasonable and the quality is very high, including pours into the right glass for a style. Most sausages are $6.50 and salads are under $10.
Noteworthy: LowBrau has been overwhelmed by the sudden success, which has held up ideas like tasting flights. That's an idea worth implementing. LowBrau will soon start a "Beer Nerds" club for those who want to meet, taste and talk beer.
Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.
About This BlogBlair Anthony Robertson is The Sacramento Bees restaurant critic. He also writes the column Beer Run. In addition to visiting the areas breweries, restaurants and coffee shops, he enjoys riding his road bike, playing golf and hiking with his dogs. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 916-321-1099. Twitter: @Blarob
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