Small Brewpub is a brewpub, true. The fermenting bins and brewing chemicals are all around you as you sit in the sparse room at family-style tables. It is also one of the most creative and quirky menus in the city. Put together, the whole effect is to create a charming place that is ‘of its neighborhood’ (Jefferson Street, Oak Cliff) but globally informed about foods and drink trends.
The brewpub side offers four rotating house beers, available as a flight if you wish ($10). There are also guest beers from outside. Wine is just two choices “white or red”, and although we liked both, the establishment could be more forthcoming on its chalk boards or menu as to what the wines are. They could also source locally. The incumbents are $8 by the glass so Duchman keg wines would fit the bill. The house brew rotation the night I was there included a bracing double IPA and a wild fermented (in oak) ‘Table Beer’. The latter really did have some of the funkiness to which wild ferments are prone.
The quirks start with the menu. Just four ‘Share’ dishes, four ‘Boards’, two pastas, three entrées and two desserts. If you, as I and the moll did, share two shares and two other dishes then you would run out of new choices after four visits, so the key for Small Brewpub is to rotate the menu frequently. Our server, Josh, assured us that they did and remarked on the seasonal nature of the dishes.
We started with the share dish sour squash fritters ($13). Deep fried pickled pigs feet, Windy Hill Farms pepper jam and coriander spiced moqua. Had pigs feet recently? They are still common in Chinese cuisine and were common in much traditional European cooking, but are confrontational for most Dallas menus. Don’t worry, in these fritters they are tame. You will be surprised how approachable these fritters are.
Windy Hill goat tartare ($15) with pear buttermilk curd, ginger snap, fine verde and IPA mustard was a chewy, umami rich tartare meatball of goat surrounded by contrasting tastes and textures. The buttermilk curd was the creaminess that lubricated the meat in the mouth, the ginger snap an insightful contrast in textures, adding crunch to the lumpy meat, and a sweetness to offset the tart pear. The fine verde basil was just garnish. The eye catching composition was straight out of the “drop the ingredients out of a helicopter from 1,000 feet” school of layout. Everything seemed as if tumbled onto the slab plate resulting in, among other things, the mandolined pear lying recumbent in folds as if posing to be a clock in Dali’s Persistence of Memory.
Each of these shares turned out to be the size of an entrée so you could continue with a share dish each in lieu of an entrée if you wished. Their placement on the menu is arbitrary.
For our main courses we started with fennel funghetti ($13). Preserved eggplant, seaweed, nduja spice and mustard. These ingredients weren’t going to be dropped from any helicopter. They were marshalled into what looked like a dam (appropriate as we sat in Small Brewpub on the night on which Dallas surpassed all previous annual rainfall totals -- with over a month of the year to spare. An ‘A’ for effort to the climate Gods). You will love the al dente funghetti pasta, the stringent eggplant, seaweed and aniseed taste in the fennel and, again, that texture accent in the wafers (unbelievably, the homemade bread. Shaved, baked, then dusted with nduja spice).
Pork loin ($20) provided thoroughly satisfying winter flavors and the most photogenic dish on the restaurant’s menu. Celery root was presented three ways: As a purée base, as soft chunks that were, I would guess, briefly braised, and as Frank Gehry would prepare them if he was out of titanium. The folded celery 1mm slices had been steamed, or otherwise cooked, enough to make them malleable, but not so much that they would disintegrate. The result: a painstakingly constructed flower (more a rose than a reconstructed celery flower). Add some genuine celery leaves for thematic consistency from the color accent, dollop with what was described as a “black pudding” purée, and sprinkle with roasted rye crumbled so fine as to be almost a powder, and you have an earthy flavor accent and a contrasting dark color note. It was memorable to savor as well, with the sweetness of the purée that lurked on the bottom and the fibrous earthiness of the petals. One of my Dishes of The Year.
We had to skip the two desserts but hear good reports.
The chefing here is by Misti Norris, who sports the kind of ambitious pedigree that makes her destined to go far. She dropped out of culinary school, learned her base butchering skills from David Uygur (chef/owner of Lucia, one of Dallas’ 10 Best), worked at Bijoux for six months prior to its sad closure, spent four years at Nana under Anthony Bombaci and two years as sous chef at ft33. I got feedback from Scott Gottlich, owner of Bijoux and now partner in 18th and Vine, BBQ and Bombaci, now overseeing Carso as executive chef at The Hilton Granite Park. Both were highly complementary.
The reasonable prices (although they have moved up around 13% since opening in December 2014) keep Small Brewpub a neighborhood type of place serving a mixture of couples, families with children, and empty nesters down on the steadily “restaurantizing” stretch of Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff, just blocks from where Lee Harvey Oswald was watching Cry of Battle at The Texas Theatre when avuncular Federal agents tapped him on the shoulder and arrested him for murdering the President. Small Brewpub is unpretentious, authentic and staffed by people who seem to have a real interest in their work and their customers. Professional without pretense.
Will it stay this accessible? I hope so