Vacation - Magnolia Pub and Brewery
As regular readers may have surmised, Heather and I tend to get our food advice from the people closest to us. A couple years ago my older sister went to visit my younger sister in San Francisco. While there, she found herself with some time to kill so she started wandering around the city. She hit up the Haight-Ashbury district for its historic value and while there she stumbled on a brewpub called Magnolia.
When she tells the story she always focuses on how horrible her luck was. Just prior to discovering the place, she had stopped at a little cafe and eaten lunch. Therefore all she could do was go in and have a beer. We've heard the story so many times, about how nice they were, how great the beer was, and how all of the dishes were out on the bar for the wait staff to try. "They all looked amazing!" she would say.
Obviously, with a story like that, we had to hit it up. The pub is relatively unassuming and small. Their menu proudly proclaims a Gastropub & Brewery. The term 'gastropub' always rubs me the wrong way. It's like they are saying, "We serve beer here but we would never degrade ourselves with the lowly 'pub' label. Our food is too good for that." Semantics aside, we entered and it was quite crowded. We were given one of the few booths in short order though.
The beer list is resoundingly British. I believe there were three different bitters on at the time we were there, along with milds, browns, and other similar types. The best part was easily the fact that they offered five of them on cask. I inquired which beer was best to try first and was pointed at Sara's Ruby Mild. Tasting the smooth and mild beer was so comforting. It was the first step in me realizing that the cask ales offered by Magnolia were easily the best examples of the conditioning and serving style I had ever had.
It wasn't because of any amazing 'hit you in the face' flavors. It was because I finally felt like I understood what traditional British beer was. Having read quite a bit about people pub crawling in Great Britain in search of the one cask that was pouring the best, I have always been anxious to understand what it took to notice the differences. Cask ale often gets described as "warm and flat" by naysayers and I think it's pretty clear that those people are only trying the worst of the casks.
Heather was a bit hesitant to try out a cask ale as she has never had one she liked. She opted to try one of their porters served out of a standard tap. Like most of their beers, the porter was a smooth, easy drinking, and pleasant example of the style.
To go with our drinks, I ordered some Stout-Braised Short Ribs and Heather got the Italian House Sausages. Both dishes perfectly fit with the general vibe of the place. We both enjoyed our own and took time out to try each other's, resulting in some clean, crumb-free plates. British comfort food to go with British comfort ales, an experience everyone should have at least once.
Frankly, we enjoyed it so much we made it a point to make a second trip! We decided to use it as a venue to meet up with a friend we hadn't seen in years. Given that we are city transit rookies, we ended up arriving for lunch over an hour earlier than our planned time and we enjoyed the bar while we waited. Part of the inspiration to go back was the fact that it was my sister's birthday. Even though she was all the way across the country, we were able to toast her with a cask ale. This time I ordered the Spud Boy IPA and Heather, feeling adventurous, opted for the Blue Bell Bitter on cask as well.
To go with our drinks we ordered an appetizer off the menu called Devils on Horseback and we were not disappointed. It is dates stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in bacon. The plate only had two of them and they were amazing. I probably could have eaten 17 or so. They were dressed in a nice and sweet kolsch gastrique that we actually thought was potentially honey at the time. This is something we definitely want to try and steal for enjoyment at home. I can't wait to try making them.
When we sat down to order our lunches, Heather and I both opted for the Pub Burger. (Thankfully, they didn't call it a Gastropub Burger.) I got blue cheese and applewood smoked bacon on mine. The burgers were extremely good and I'm glad I didn't miss getting one. The beef is described on the menu as "dry-aged organic." I'm not really certain what that means, but it made for a very nice burger.
As we finished our lunches I was able to round out my beer sampling, managing to try each of the five beers on cask between our two trips. My favorite beer of the bunch was Bonnie Lee's Best Bitter. It won a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2011 and it's evident why. It was easily the best in a lineup full of great cask beers.
After all was said and done, hearing the Magnolia story over and over again from my sister proved to be worth it. I just wish we all could have gone together.
Mike on March 25, 2012 at 12:20pm EDT