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CHURCH BREW WORKS

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The holiday season encourages reuniting with old friends, so I thought I'd partake of the prevailing spirit and stop by and see how my neighborhood pal, the Church Brew Works, was doing. It'd been a couple years since I'd last had a lengthy visit -- and there's no time like now to check out the holiday potions the brewmaster's been concocting.

Five years ago it seemed like there might be a brewpub opening on every corner; the market has shaken out, but the Church Brew Works has survived and thrived thanks in part to its flexible menu, which ranges from pub nibblers to filet mignon entrees. Of course, the Brew Works setting -- the meticulously rehabbed interior of St. John the Baptist Church with its altar of beer -- remains incomparable. The lighted tree added for the season did little to diminish the gleaming tanks.

One specialty beer that night was the "big and malty" Burly Friar Barleywine, but given its 10 percent alcohol content, I demurred for something more gulpable. The other, the Oktoberfest beer, was clocking in at half the alcoholic volume while still promising to be malty. Oktoberfest is increasingly an elastic "event" whose duration stretches deep into fall, so I'm not surprised to find it intersecting with the starting-earlier-than-ever Christmas season, thereby making the Oktoberfest brew my all-purpose holiday beer choice. My companion had the cask-conditioned Pipe Organ Pale Ale, purposefully low on fizz and high on hops.

We began with some "untraditional Pittsburgh pierogies," the flavors of which vary. The filling of the day was a Buffalo-style chicken mixed with mashed potatoes; the four pierogies were topped with a spicy cheese sauce and green onions. The pierogie skins here are thin so one isn't overwhelmed with a mouthful of stodgy dough, and they'd been sautéed to a pleasing golden-brown crispness.

My companion pored over the entrees, but I already knew I wanted a pizza. Installing wood-fired pizza ovens right in restaurants has to be one of the best recent marketing gambits: One whiff of that smoky baking and it was pizza for me. And I was feeling old-school -- no fancified artichoke, smoked jalapeno corn or potato puree topping for me tonight. Just cheese, but it would be a cheese extravaganza: The cinco fromaggio is a white-style pizza topped with a blend of five cheeses, olive oil, garlic, basil and, just to be a little chi-chi, toasted pine nuts. These 14-inch pizzas easily serve two; thick and chewy, they are especially filling. Mine, of course, was especially cheesy, just oozing with dairy goodness and packing a little fresh-garlic kick.

The entrees all come with the brewery's signature bread -- soft foccacia topped with malted grains from the brewing process. My companion had decided on the hearty-sounding buffalo and wild mushroom loaf. Beneath a nest of very thin fried onions lay three substantial slices of meatloaf topped in a roasted tomato sauce, a mound of Michigan Gold mashed potatoes and a helping of julienned vegetables. The meatloaf was a rich dark brown, and proved very moist and flavorful alone on a fork without any sauce or mashed potatoes. There was a nice balance of meat and mushroom; the mushrooms were in large enough pieces that their flavor was not subsumed by the stronger meat.

One has to give the Brew Works credit for slipping beer or beer-related ingredients into the whole menu -- from a salad dressing made with Celestial Gold right down to the ice cream. While a joint venture between Brew Works beer and Oakland's own Dave & Andy's ice cream might sound like it sprung from the fertile imagination of Homer Simpson, I assure you it's a sublime meeting. The wort from the beer-making process is boiled down into syrup and used to make several handmade batches of ice cream and yogurt. We tried the cinnamon ice cream, and though the spice made it a trifle grainy, it was rich, creamy -- and malty. Yes, even behind the strong flavor of cinnamon, there was yummy malt.

For me, the Church Brew Works has always been a great place to take out-of-town visitors (and they'll be arriving sooner than you know!). The menu suits all -- from foodies looking for goat cheese to the non-adventurous (everybody likes pizza or a sandwich). The kids can get a house-made cranberry ginger ale, and exhausted adult shoppers will enjoy a cool, malty one. Nothing beats the look of surprise on visitors' faces when they come through the door and see the massive church transformed. This gift of amazement is free, but you could dig deeper and get the first round. * * *

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