Some people sit on the beach and drink beer. Others sit on the beach, drink beer and make life plans that will leave no time for beaches — but plenty of time for beer. Ian Clark is definitely the latter kind of guy. "I had a goal of, by thirty, owning my own restaurant," says Clark. But when he was 29, that goal still seemed out of reach, despite years of running other people's kitchens, most recently at Centro Latin Kitchen and Jax Fish House. "I felt the time crunch and immediately went home [from Mexico] and started writing a business plan," he remembers. The result was BRU handbuilt ales & eats, which got its start as a nanobrewery in his garage and expanded this summer to a brewpub in an out-of-the-way strip center in Boulder.
With Clark's background — he attended the New England Culinary Institute and has been cooking since he was fourteen — it should be no surprise that BRU's food is complex. But people are surprised, in part from years of conditioning. Beer is what you drink while watching the game, or so the thinking goes. It's what you down with friends at tailgate parties while munching on wings and burgers and chips. It's not as sophisticated as cabernet franc or sauvignon blanc, so why would anyone want to pair it with the likes of carrot flan or Berkshire pork with tomato marmalade?
And yet BRU is doing just that. Clark seems intent on updating outdated notions, both about beer (which he's doing along with the rest of the craft-brewing movement) and about the food served with it. This might be why the dining room is laid out the way it is, with the fermentation room front and center when you walk in; the open kitchen with its wood-fired oven beyond that; and a small but whimsical bar, with tap handles in the form of waffle irons and whisks, somewhat lost in the back. Despite its happy-hour name, BRU clearly isn't just a place to blow off steam. Eating shares the stage with drinking here, and guests are invited to do — and admire — both.
So instead of burgers, the globe-trotting menu features meatballs in a heady broth of pork stock, crème fraîche and harissa, with a carrot-and-fennel slaw. Tomato marmalade accents rings of house-butchered Berkshire pork. Yes, there's pizza, but it's made on sourdough crust with lemon-scented ricotta and mushrooms or ale-spiked tomato sauce with sausage and kale. Instead of peanuts to munch while you settle in, there's trail mix with malted oat clusters, almonds and popcorn dusted with sea salt and housemade bacon powder. Even that ale you're reaching for was approached with a chef's sensibility, featuring notes of coriander and bitter oranges (Solus Patersbier), sour cherries (Arium Dubbel) or fresh lemon zest and juniper (Citrum IPA). Indeed, so many food flavors are found in the beers that the popular beer flight, with a choice of five of the ever-changing dozen on tap, seems less like a flight than a tasting menu.
With Clark devoting so much attention to the libations side of the business, the kitchen is often helmed by chefs Jason Brown, his longtime sous, and Josh Monopoli, formerly of Boulder's Black Cat. They tackle the menu as a team, tweaking as crops cycle in and out and issuing broader revamps with each change of seasons. What won't change, however, is their desire to push the envelope. "We like to do things a little differently around here," Clark says, and that attitude flavored every dish that came my way. BRU's bread salad, for example, wasn't a typical panzanella, with cubes of day-old bread soaking up tomatoes' summery juices. Instead, it came out as puffy columns of fresh bread drizzled with red-pepper vinaigrette, a scattering of red and yellow tomatoes, and arugula topped with buttermilk ice. The banh mi was reimagined, too, served on a housemade boule rather than a baguette, with ale sausage and crispy shards of pork confit. And while the fried chicken was as down-home as it gets, reflecting Brown and Monopoli's Southern roots, what it was plated over was not: a salad with radishes, arugula and legumes.
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Ambition is a good thing, but sometimes it's okay — really, it is — to let a good thing be. Not everything has to be touched or tweaked. Mashed potatoes and gravy go well with fried chicken, better than that salad. Ice cream sandwiches, especially ones with dense spent-grain chocolate-chip cookies, might be better off with less pungently smoked vanilla ice cream. And that buttermilk ice didn't so much melt into a creamy dressing as make me wonder how ice crystals ended up on my salad. No matter how much reinventing is going on, certain fundamentals need to be respected, such as ensuring that all promised ingredients make it to the plate (numerous times they didn't), and grabbing a spoon and tasting along the way. If that had been done, I doubt my bread salad would've come out too salty to eat, my carrot flan too drenched in dressing to taste like anything other than vinaigrette, or my corn-and-tomato tart like an especially fiery batch of jalapeños and little else.
And maybe the kitchen could share some of its ambition with the front of the house. Considering BRU's culinary aspirations, it might be wise for servers to greet tables with something other than, "So, would you like some beer?" or to take a moment to share the ice cream specials rather than dropping off dessert menus and disappearing. If this happens to you, flag down any server who happens to see your wave; the housemade ice creams are spectacular, with ever-changing flavors such as almond cayenne, buttermilk tarragon and double chocolate.
Clark may not be in his twenties anymore, but he's got the fire in his belly of a kid with the world at his feet and plenty to prove. Right now he's flourishing in the drinks department; just how much will be determined any day now, when judges assess the five ales he entered in the Great American Beer Festival. Despite success with certain dishes — especially pizzas, banh mi, fried chicken and ice cream — the food program needs a bit more time to settle in, but that's also not surprising for a chef who's reaching for the stars. Given how goal-oriented Clark is, he probably already has a plan for how to do that. And if he doesn't, all he'd need would be another beach vacation to figure it out.