- Walter Novak
- Salmon sous vide: Taste it once and you'll be hooked.
Not that Great Lakes hasn't earned its share of kudos. Its top-rated microbrews -- Dortmunder Gold, Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, and Burning River Pale Ale among them -- have been sating savvy suds fans throughout the pub's 17 years. And through their innovative recycling programs, owners Pat and Dan Conway have demonstrated a stewardship of the environment that is a conservationist's dream come true.
At the same time, though, the experience of sitting down to eat in their historic brewpub has run hot and cold, often suffering from uninspired dishes, inconsistent preparations, and so-so service. Yet the Conways always have maintained that they care as much about their kitchen as they do about their brewery ops; and if we had a pint of Dortmunder for every time we heard that the menu was getting an upgrade, we'd be flunking out of rehab by now.
Understandably, then, we took it with a grain of salt when Kurt Steeber came onboard as new executive chef last fall. The well-traveled Lakewood native could scarcely be a better match for the environmentally minded Conways: A proponent of sustainable agriculture and the use of seasonal, locally grown products, Steeber honed his chops with one of the pioneers of regional American cuisine, Jeremiah Tower, in the San Francisco kitchen of Stars, before going on to open his own Pebble Beach restaurant.
Undoubtedly, this guy had the smarts and the chops to move Great Lakes' menu toward contemporary enlightenment. Yet his mandate seemed fraught with built-in peril: How could he make the food as elegant and innovative as the brews while maintaining the laid-back, reasonably priced ambiance that the pub's loyal clientele had come to expect?
Today, after nearly six months, Steeber will tell you it sometimes seems an uphill battle. So far, his streamlined lunch and dinner menus have maintained a careful balance between updated versions of the pub's popular standards and his own creative compositions. The result is a menu where burgers share space with butternut-squash risotto, and bratwursts commingle with salmon sous vide. Yet Steeber's willingness to compromise has yet to wow the crowds: Pub-grub fans are still grumbling about the changes to their pretzel chicken, while the city's gourmets -- long ago convinced that nothing was cookin' at this end of Market Avenue -- have been slow to rediscover the magic.
Let's hope everybody wises up soon, because Steeber's kitchen is turning out the best food Great Lakes' old brick walls have ever seen. Equally remarkable, he is doing it while maintaining all those qualities that diners rightly loved about the brewpub in the first place: the casual ambiance, the unpretentious vibe, and the moderate prices.
Take that salmon sous vide, for example. At a modest $17, this is probably the most elegant treatment of this much-abused fish on any menu in town. (Sous vide, incidentally, is the art of cooking inside a vacuum-sealed bag, in a bath of very warm water; the results are meats of unsurpassed tenderness and succulence, seeming to evaporate on the tongue. Developed in France, it's a process that has been slowly working its way into this country's finest restaurants.)
To prepare this wow-inducer, Steeber dabs the thick-cut filet of wild, line-caught Alaskan salmon with Napa Valley extra-virgin olive oil, dusts it with kosher salt, vacuum-seals it, and poaches it in a 140-degree bath for about 10 minutes. He then removes it from the bag and settles it on a pedestal of buttery sautéed leeks and smashed Yukon Gold potatoes, garnishes it with a bit of orange zest, and drizzles it with fragrant tarragon beurre blanc. As you might expect, what results is a dish of both luxurious richness and wholesome purity, with textures so astonishingly ephemeral, they seem to hover in the space between substance and imagination.
Steeber's repertoire of au courant offerings also includes grilled "flatiron" steak, so named because of its triangular shape, similar to an old-fashioned clothes iron. Discovered by University of Nebraska agricultural scientists during a search for overlooked and underutilized cuts of beef, the muscle comes from the top shoulder of the chuck and was being turned routinely into ground beef. The ag folks were able to demonstrate, though, that when properly trimmed, the cut emerges as a tender, firm, and flavorful cousin to the much more pricey strip steak; as a result, restaurants (and price-conscious diners) across the country are quickly embracing it.
As you would expect, Steeber's treatment of the flatiron sizzles. Gently grilled (we'd recommend nothing beyond medium rare) and served with spinach, twice-fried potato wedges coated with a savory blend of parmesan and panko, and a vibrant housemade steak sauce, dancing with the complexities of molasses, pineapple, anchovies, bourbon, and Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, the steak delivers a big hit of tender, beefy goodness at a highly accessible price.
Other seasonal treats from Steeber include lush, aromatic butternut-squash risotto, served in a glistening acorn-squash shell and seasoned with Asiago, tomato, and a bounty of locally grown veggies, including Killbuck Valley's organic mushrooms. And at lunch, there's the scrumptious "pot pie," filled with finely diced onions, parsnips, carrots, and turnips, thinly sliced apples, and buttery bits of braised pork shoulder, topped with a mashed sweet-potato lid. Both these earthy creations taste just right with well-buttered hunks of the pub's rustic cracked-barley bread (locally made by Zoss the Swiss Baker) and a snifter of seasonal Blackout Stout, a huge, Russian-style brew with a massive, malty body, heaps of hops, and a whopping 9 percent alcohol by volume.
In fact, in three visits, we discovered only one dud: a tough braised lamb shank, served with unevenly cooked cubes of garnet yam and an inconsequential amount of savory braising liquid. We quickly ordered another Blackout to help us drown the pain.
As for the old faves, Steeber has done what he can to bring them up to date. Pretzel chicken now features a sleeker, more delicate mustard-ale sauce. The popular cheese soup has returned to its roots and now offers the original blend of half Stilton and half cheddar cheeses, for a lighter texture and more vibrant flavor profile. And the sausage sampler (recently featuring hot Italian, Brazilian linguiça, smoked kielbasa, and a pale, tender British-style banger, all from S&K Deli at the West Side Market) has been modernized with a lip-smacking, finely cut napa cabbage "kraut," briefly sautéed to order and adroitly enhanced with salt, lemon, and caraway seed, for a light, bright, and totally modern garnish. "Sauerkraut for the New Millennium," a companion rightly called it.
At the same time, Steeber and GM Elizabeth Buck have been striving to bring service up to par, with equally notable success. While an otherwise enthusiastic weeknight server did forget to bring a breadbasket, then disappeared for just a little too long at meal's end, on all visits our orders came out of the kitchen at a steady pace, water glasses were kept filled, and we were given ample opportunity to guzzle way more beer than was good for us.
Thanks to Steeber -- and to the Conways, of course, for their commitment to crafting a contemporary pub -- today's Great Lakes menu is a far cry from the fried calamari, chicken quesadillas, and fish and chips that filled the bill in days of yore. If that disturbs you, just shrug it off as another sign of the approaching apocalypse, along with high gas prices, evolution, and Anna Nicole Smith. If, on the other hand, that fact delights you, round up your posse and ride on down.
Steeber will appreciate the love.