Adam Erace Adam Erace battles adult on-set diabetes and cankles as the restaurant critic for the Philadelphia City Paper. He also writes about food and travel for publications like Details, Fodor's and Southern Living. He lives in South Philly with his wife, Charlotte, and two rescue mutts, Lupo and Marco.
Matt Buehler isn’t trying to fool anyone: “We’re not hardcore like Brauhaus,” says the chef of Center City’s raucous, wood-clad new indoor beer garden Brü Craft & Wurst.
The 36-year-old is referring to Brauhaus Schmitz, of course, the local touchstone for rigorously researched traditional and modern German cuisine. That ain’t what’s cooking at Brü, where the house kraut ferments with a yogurt-whey shortcut, beer flows from self-serve kegs controlled by iPads and post-grad frat bros and dips in jean jackets devour sticky buns lathered in foie-gras buttercream at communal picnic tables facing McGillin’s across Drury Street. Throughout the night, the dueling watering holes trade the clammy of skin and bleary of eye back and forth like a two-bit hooker, and the street assumes the damp, revelrous atmosphere of a Cancun block party.
Grab a sombrero, because despite this, you should still go.
Owner Teddy Sourias’ portfolio (Finn McCools, Prime Lounge) isn’t exactly what you’d call inspiring, but the restaurateur has really done right by the old Mitchell & Ness showroom. A forest of felled planks panel the long, narrow space in varying shades and grades. A glass garage door rolls up to the street, and carnival lights lope across the ceiling. The self-serve draught tower really is impressive, even if some of its six beers (ahem, Corona) aren’t. Above each tap, a tablet inlaid into the rounded copper cladding dispenses beer at a finger’s touch, but the directions on how to operate the system aren’t so clear, leaving me wondering where to buy my rechargeable “Brew Card” and arbitrarily tapping buttons like my grandmother might if I handed her my iPhone.
Eventually I abandoned the hope of Jetsons beer and ordered a pint from a good old-fashioned (and brew-savvy) waitress. With crowds deep and rowdy as Brü’s and a layout so parsimonious even the slenderest of servers has to squeeze and shuffle between the crowded benches at the back of the restaurant, excellent service isn’t what you’d expect. Yet that’s what I received. My server deserves double props for keeping the attitude sunny and the beers refilled; a lesser man would collapse under the onslaught.
Like I nearly did under the onslaught of food. Gose in hand (tepid, with a sputtering fizz), the Drury Street breeze fanning me like a boxer’s cornerman, I prepared for the arrival of the hulking $48 mixed-meats-&-wursts platter, which Buehler describes as “basically the whole menu.” The carnivore carnival sees a dam of pointy, crispy, skin-on fries, the juicy, edgy, whey-fermented kraut (whose secret accelerator I’m stealing for home) and potato-apple latkes constructed for a slew of proteins. There were sausages both housemade (fresh pork greened with marjoram and chive, liverwurst) and from seminal Fox Chase butcher Reiker’s (veal-and-pork weisswurst, a smoky Hungarian-style link), plus pork meatballs, falling-apart braised bacon blocks, curls of pink Westphalian ham and a slab of melting braised pork rib whose tangy glaze was inspired by, according to Buehler, Chinese sweet-and-sour sauce. Not hardcore like Brauhaus, indeed.
But don’t let Buehler’s self-deprecation fool you. This veteran of Striped Bass, Oceanaire, Kraftwork and Bar Ferdinand has sunk more care and energy into this menu that he probably needs to. Those French fries? Brü would be within its rights to use frozen. They don’t, and they’re some of the best in town. The lightly funky liverwurst, poached like a terrine, sliced and seared until dark and crunchy, brought to mind a more finessed scrapple, veined with ground bacon and pork liver.
Buehler’s working toward bringing more of the sausage production in house, while other items, like the frozen, ready-bake pretzel from Bavaria, will remain outsourced. The restaurant sells 70 of the salty, chewy loops a night. “We’d have to hire a guy just to make pretzels all day, and we’re already cooking in some cramped quarters.” I’ll do it, if only I can get paid in liverwurst.
Despite traveling thousands of miles to get here, the soft, steaming pretzel certainly tasted home-baked. I pulled it apart, burning the prints off my fingers. Deep-fried nuggets of knockwurst followed, in a red glaze of curry ketchup in a basket of more fries. Sharp, gooey cambozola cheese, sliced apples and bacon made for an easy-to-like flatbread.
Churning out food at a volume like this, some things did slip through Buehler’s grasp. Under-crisped and under-salted, the latkes had all the spunk of Debbie Downer. The meatballs were rolled in flour before frying, and you could taste it in the pasty film that clung to their outsides like papier-mâché. On spätzle, fragrant marjoram and sage and meaty sauteed cremini and oyster mushrooms created a flavor profile plucked from the Bavarian woods, but the dish of tiny browned dumplings had absorbed all their butter in transit, leaving them dry and cool.
Buehler is also still perfecting those foie sticky buns, a two-day process in which the temperamental dough is in constant jeopardy. Even when they make it through, there are only a dozen or fewer available per night, which strikes me as dumb for a restaurant that seats 100 and serves only two desserts. You can probably tell I didn’t get to try one, and I’m a little bitter about it.
A smart tart of caramelized apples on salty pretzel streusel assuaged the irritation. Elegant, restrainedly sweet Bavarian cream flowed around it like an ivory moat. It was as worthy as Jess Nolen’s formidable desserts at Brauhaus Schmitz, and other restaurants, for that matter. The frat-party stank on the place might conspire to make you think otherwise, but Brü’s got some sneaky fine-dining game hidden up its lederhosen. Let’s toast it with a beer, served by a human.
BRÜ CRAFT & WURST | 1318 Chestnut St., 215-800-1079, bruphilly.com. Hours: Mon.-Sun., 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Appetizers, $5-$9; entrees, $7-$16 (mixed platter for $48 serves four); desserts, $6-$8.
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