Written by Jason Walker, The Heavy Table
About a year ago, Muddy Waters, a much-loved but somewhat grungy Minneapolis coffee shop,moved a few blocks down Lyndale Ave. The owners kept the coffee but undertook a massive makeover: adding a full bar, an ambitious craft beer and whiskey program, and a chef-driven food scene that is both workmanlike and thoughtful.
It sure worked. Muddy Waters today has an impeccable beer list, curated by Surly veteran Paddy Whelan, as well as a terrific menu from chef Scott Hurlbut and sous chef Mitch Robbie. Open early mornings through late nights, Muddy Waters is the rare eatery that combines top-notch coffee and home-baked pastries with rock-solid food and one of the best drinking scenes in the city. You can go there at any point in the day, for any reason, and exit happy. And many do.
When I called Whelan, the restaurant’s co-owner, and explained the theme of this story was pairing food with beer, he replied, “Great, because that’s all I talk about.”
To Whelan, craft beer has risen to a level that it’s able to be reasonably paired with high-quality food. Wine, and red wine in particular, was long synonymous with high-quality food. It still is, but now it must battle beer for diners’ attention.
“It’s OK to come and have a nice little porter or something with a hangar steak,” Whelan said. “You don’t necessarily have to drink red wine. It’s such a great bang for your buck. You can buy a $5 pint versus a $30 bottle of wine.”
The only problem is deciding which pint: Muddy Waters has 30 taps, and there’s not a middling beer in the bunch. Whelan’s list leans local, but not local to a fault. The beers at Muddy Waters are picked not just because they’re local or just because they’re popular. They’re picked because they represent a fine example of that particular style.
Take Steel Toe Brewing, a relatively new St. Louis Park brewery led by Jason Schoneman. Already popular among beer fanatics for its flavorful, class-defying brews but still awfully small in scope, Steel Toe is only available in a few bars and liquor stores. Muddy Waters was its first draft account and Whelan is a huge booster of Schoneman and Steel Toe, which he said was a home run for the already innovative local beer scene.
“I look at breweries like Summit, Surly, Steel Toe, Fulton, and I’m so stoked, and now you’re seeing even Schell’s spark up that innovation with the Stag Series,” he said. “Not all these new beers that are coming out are as good. I want nothing more than to have all local beers on tap, but they have to be awesome. Harriet Brewing is getting better and better; I enjoy drinking that Westside IPA because it’s really smart and really ballsy for their first beer.
“I don’t have Michelob Ultra drinkers coming in here. If you want something here, you’re going to have to get something with flavor and ingredients.”
That goes for the food, too. Hurlbut believes that balance is key for any meal; he described his menu as using locally sourced ingredients to produce a simple menu “without a lot of adjectives.”
“One of my old chefs, Steven Brown, taught me long ago: Put good stuff on the plate and keep it simple, then let your food do the talking,” Hurlbut said. “Let it say, ‘This is how a good beer and a good plate of food should be.’”
Take the fish taco. A standby of menus everywhere that’s often overwrought with batter, vinegar, mayonnaise or all three, Hurlbut’s is peaceful. An odd way to describe it, maybe, but the lager-battered cod paired with a little slaw and tangy house-pickled red onions does not hammer your taste buds. It’s relaxed and, as Hurlbut preaches, balanced. Paired with Steel Toe Provider, an American blonde ale with a delicate structure of hoppy up-front notes and a slight bite, it’s a yin-yang success.
More balance rests in the Surly Bender-braised pot roast sliders, served with those red onions and horseradish with homemade pickles. Paired with Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, the balance of smoky and chocolate flavors in the porter supplement the braise of the beef. Lacking smoky flavor itself, the beef is a toothsome example of slow cooking (Hurlbut takes five days in all) turning a flavor profile into something subtly complex – and therefore a good match for the slightly smoky porter. The Edmund Fitzgerald doesn’t wallop you with any of its dark, rich notes, and neither does the fulfilling beef.
“The flavor between the beers and the food makes you stop for a second and savor it,” Hurlbut said. “You come in after you’ve been working your ass off all day and you just want to wolf down some food, but the stuff we put on the table is good enough to make you want to stop, slow down, relax and enjoy where you are.”
And that’s what Whelan is going for. Muddy Waters may win awards for its beer list, but it’s starting to be best known for its combination of quality in all facets, including a highly knowledgeable staff who can easily suggest dishes, drinks and pairings at the drop of a hat. Yet what truthfully keeps people coming back, Whelan believes, starts in the kitchen.
“These guys (Hurlbut and Robbie) are the reasons the beer program works so well here,” Whelan said. “Because if it wasn’t for the restaurant end of it, we wouldn’t work. The restaurant makes the bar, and the bar complements the restaurant. We’re not trying to be a place where you come in, order shots and leave.
“Scott and Mitch make this place happen. This beer list exists because these guys lead the dance. To me, it’s a no-brainer: If it tastes good, let’s sell it! These guys are the brains of the business.”
MUDDY WATERS KILLER PAIRING #1:
Fried goat cheese with with watercress, sage honey, pepitas and oils, with Wittekerke white ale.
It starts with slabs of Stickney Hill goat cheese, egg washed, floured and fried. Pretty simple there. “It’s more of a French-style goat cheese with less of the barnyard-ness that you associate with American goat cheese,” Hurlbut said. “It’s a really smooth goat cheese.”
Then Hurlbut delivers a beautiful plating of sage honey, mellow chile oil and Syrian pumpkinseed oil and tops it all with cumin-dusted baked pumpkinseeds. The sweet oils balance the cheese’s subtle softness, and the Wittekerke leaves your palate refreshed of the cheese’s slight powdery aftertaste. The Wittekerke is an easy drinker and feels right at home with the cheese. And if fried cheese can ever be described as “light,” this would qualify. Nothing greasy or fried-seeming other than it’s battered, it’s hot and melty, and the combination with the array of oils is evidently pleasing. The Wittekerke has few overzealous notes, finishes refreshingly and takes nothing away from the cheese or oils.
“It’s very light, you’re going to get an almost cream-like taste on it,” Whelan said. “It’s more of a delicate beer because we want these subtle notes to break down on our palate more while we’re enjoying it.”
MUDDY WATERS KILLER PAIRING #2:
Pumpkin ricotta gnocchi, with brown butter, brussels sprouts and sage cream sauce, with Stone Smoked Vanilla Bean Porter.
Here we’ve landed in decadent territory. Gnocchi is often described as tiny pillows, and these are certainly soft. But they’re ultra-creamy, too, as the ricotta turns them into delicate daubs rather than the nearly-too-chewy texture of some gnocchi. Meanwhile, the Smoked Vanilla Bean Porter slides down your throat like a Wisconsin butterburger and somehow feels both decadent and refreshing.
“Part of the reason I chose this beer was pure selfishness, because it is absolutely delicious,” Whelan said. “It’s very rich, and the gnocchi is filling; it is the ultimate comfort food. It’s tough to be in a bad mood after enjoying something like this. And then the vanilla finish on (the beer) is just clever. And it’s smoked … it tastes like amazing pipe tobacco smells.”